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Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 16 Feb 2022

Vol. 282 No. 13

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine entitled Issues impacting the Forestry Sector in Ireland, to be taken at 1 p.m., the time allocated to the debate not to exceed two hours and in accordance with Standing Order 78, the Chairperson of the committee, being a Member of Dáil Éireann or another Member of Dáil Eireann nominated in his or her stead, may attend and speak to the motion and may take a seat on the floor of the Seanad Chamber; No. 2, Private Members' business, Planning and Development (Solar Panels for Public Buildings, Schools, Homes and Other Premises) (Amendment) Bill 2021 – Committee Stage, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and to adjourn at 5.30 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 3, the Animal Health and Welfare and Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 5.30 p.m. and to adjourn at 7.30 p.m., if not previously concluded.

I join in the welcome to the Lithuanian ambassador. Cuirim fáilte roimhe. I had the pleasure in my previous life as Cathaoirleach to visit his country and had an exceptionally good time there. I will not go into details.

The Cathaoirleach mentioned the Lithuanian community in Ireland. I eat a lot of fish and the man who looks after my fish is a lovely Lithuanian man. If I have a problem I ring him and he makes sure he has fresh cod, hake or whatever is on the menu. Even though the fishmonger is Lithuanian, the fish are Irish. I wish the ambassador well. There are long-standing good relations with his country and I am sure they will continue.

I rise on three issues. I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on an excellent occasion yesterday. It was historic and extremely well done and I was glad to be a part of the event. It does great credit to the Cathaoirleach; to his guest Senator Norris, the father of the House; and to former President Mary Robinson. It was well choreographed, I enjoyed it and it was a significant acknowledgement of the role of the Seanad. It was appropriate and auspicious. Well done to the Cathaoirleach.

This week is Epilepsy Ireland week. I have declared my relationship with that medical condition. I acknowledge that to the House and ask the Acting Leader to arrange a short debate of an hour or an hour and a half on the issue. We should realise there are 40,000 known epileptics in Ireland. It is believed the real amount could be closer to 100,000. It is an unusual condition because it can creep up on the least expected occasion, as I know. It is worth debating and I would like that debate to happen.

I acknowledge and pay respect to the former President, Mary Robinson, with regard to a matter she raised yesterday with the Cathaoirleach as one the Seanad could deal with. That is the area of climate change. It is a burning question, as we all realise. I have grandchildren and would love that they would see in 30 or 40 years' time, when I am in a different situation, that we have looked after our planet and climate. We are making moves in the right direction but, as the former President said, the Seanad, through the Cathaoirleach's leadership, can play a greater role in the area of climate change. We ignore it at our peril. We see it in the waters, seas, land, changing climates, etc. I would like us to create an impetus on it. Eight years' time is too late. The clock is ticking and, unfortunately, we are running out of time.

I thank Senator O'Donovan for his leadership of the Seanad as Cathaoirleach. The issue he raised in relation to the former President is something the Seanad will take up. We have been set a challenge and need to meet it. A challenge by a former President is something we should listen to.

On behalf of the Fine Gael group, I welcome the ambassador to the Seanad Chamber. We offer solidarity to a fellow small country and fellow European Union member. These are worrying times in eastern Europe with all that is going on and possible threats between Russia and Ukraine, so we offer solidarity from a small country that has a long history with foreign powers.

I join in congratulations to the Cathaoirleach and his team in the Houses of the Oireachtas for the wonderful launch yesterday of Seanad 100 with Senator Norris and Mary Robinson. It was wonderfully choreographed and introduced. I commend the work done by Mark Mulqueen and the team. It was a wonderful start to a year of engagement and recognition of the role of the Seanad in this State.

I attended with Senator Crowe a wonderful event on Sunday at Renmore Barracks, Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa, in the heart of Galway city to mark the centenary of the handover of the barracks by British forces to the Irish Army. The Army showcased its splendour and wonderful trappings. There was a family day afterwards and a display of military equipment. Over recent weeks, there has been much media engagement on what is going on in terms of this country's defence capabilities. The Russian manoeuvres in our economic zone were, thankfully, pushed out. Questions have been raised about our military capability. The report of the Commission on the Defence Forces was recently published and has been welcomed. It contains 69 main recommendations and 133 in total. It is time for a debate on the issue. I have not read the report in full. It is quite comprehensive. Serious issues are raised about where we are going in terms of our Defence Forces. What plans do we have? What level of engagement are we planning for? A number of options are stipulated in the report. It looks at different levels of ambition. The step-up to level 2 would require an additional €500 million per annum and level 3 would require expenditure of €3 billion per annum. These are serious questions we have to ask and which are worthy of debate. I know the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, is anxious to engage with key stakeholders in the Oireachtas. It is clear that the type of defence capability that we must retain and the level of resourcing we are willing to commit to equip and train our Defence Forces are worthy of debate in the House. The retention of Army personnel is a key issue, particularly in the first three years. It is not peculiar to Ireland but is worthy of debate. I urge the Acting Leader to contact the Minister to arrange a debate on the issue at the earliest opportunity.

I too welcome the Lithuanian ambassador and commend his country on its stand in allowing Taiwan to establish an embassy. Many of us support Lithuania in its dealings with China. It has set an example for other small countries. As we say around here, "keep her lit".

Last week, I highlighted the Sinn Féin legislation on so-called safe access zones and how it would ludicrously criminalise somebody for expressing comments in private conversation that are critical of abortion simply if they happen to be made within 100 m of where abortions are happening, for example during a conversation in a coffee shop. To promote this draconian, fascistic suppression of free speech, Sinn Féin advanced claims about people in Limerick who had engaged in quiet respectful witness on the subject of abortion. We now know these claims to be untrue. Since then we have learned of a breach of journalistic ethics in the way the Irish Independent interviewed and reported on a conversation with one of the women involved in quiet prayer near that Limerick hospital. I compliment Gript media on bringing the mistreatment of Ms Antoinette Fitzgibbon to light. The Irish Independent journalist in her report left out the clarity with which Ms Fitzgibbon stated she had no prior knowledge of the days and times when abortions took place in the Limerick hospital, an issue central to the claim made by the Together for Safety group with which the journalist was apparently in contact. The journalist invented remarks attributed to Ms Fitzgibbon suggestive of the idea that the pro-life group had knowledge and intent to time their witness along with abortions.

I do not mean to interrupt the Senator in mid flow. He is making statements of fact. This House is about debate but there are mechanisms in which that can be adjudged by the journalistic council and other bodies. I want the Senator to be careful on those issues.

I will be extremely careful. The claims made by the Together for Safety group were suggestive of the fact that Ms Fitzgibbon and her group had knowledge and intent in relation to when abortions would be taking place in Limerick. That was not true and the Irish Independent has since corrected the article online. It seems to me that the Together for Safety group, the Irish Independent and the journalist Ellen Coyne all owe Ms Fitzgibbon and her group an apology for the allegation that was made and the way it was reported.

This was despite the journalist getting the interview on the basis of her statement that she wanted to give a fair hearing to the pro-life group. If the shoe was on the other foot and this was a journalist with pro-life sympathies misrepresenting a situation such as this, he or she would be back making coffee and photocopying for a considerable period of time before being allowed to return to the newsroom. It is important that-----

The Senator is aware of our new Standing Orders on referring to events outside the House. While it is quite proper and right to do that, he must be mindful of the Standing Orders.

It is also our job as legislators to highlight unfairness, untruth and manipulation, whether in politics, by politicians or by the media. This is our forum to call for fairness for all sides. I have done so and I ask others to reflect on what I have said.

I ask the Senator to please be mindful of all of our Standing Orders. We have them for a reason - for balanced debate in the House and people's right to their good name.

The words we just heard were, "I compliment Gript media". Need I say any more.

You should say a lot more. You should start with an apology for the untruths you passed on in the House.

Wherever the truth comes from, let us welcome it.

I will let the Cathaoirleach deal with it.

I will not rise to the bait of that nonsense. What I will say is-----

I always tell the truth.

Please stop interrupting. There is a way of-----

I am defending myself since the Cathaoirleach will not.

He is defending himself. He is defending the Gript media group that deals with spite, hatred and lies-----

What about Sinn Féin?

-----and all of us have been-----

What about Sinn Féin killing people and apologising for murder or never apologising for murder?

-----victims of that poisonous group but here we are. He will not allow me to speak. There we are.

All Senators got the letter on Standing Order 39.

If everybody told the truth, there would not be a problem.

Is that right?

We all know that.

Senator Gavan should withdraw those comments.

No, I will not be withdrawing them.

The Senator can call on him to withdraw them if she wishes.

That is under Standing Order 39.

She can do so every day if she likes.

Sinn Féin never apologises. That is the point.

On the Order of Business, I ask Senator Gavan to continue uninterrupted.

I thank the Cathaoirleach very much and he might give me a few extra seconds.

I want to raise several issues that relate to my village of Castleconnell. The first is the really good news yesterday that Nelson's Cross junction on the R525 will get a table top service. This has been the scene of many accidents over many years. I do not normally raise local issues but I am doing so because this came about as a result of a concerted campaign by locals. Hundreds of signatures were handed in to the Department of Transport. I was privileged to hand in those signatures last month. It shows the result of people power. I compliment all of the people in the village of Castleconnell who signed the petition and did not give up. They were told on countless occasions there would be no point trying to get the safety works completed. It just shows that local democracy can and does work. I compliment the people who kept fighting for this. We look forward to those safety measures being implemented. It has also been a good week in terms of sports funding for Castleconnell Boat Club, Lisnagry Football Club and Aisling Annacotty Football Club.

There has been one bit of bad news. This was the news that our local nursing home, Riverbrook, will have to close. This is significant in terms of jobs but more significant in terms of the excellent service that has been provided for many years. Can we imagine the trauma of residents having to be moved at a late age, which is unfortunately what may well face them if the collective consultancy process does not deliver a survival plan for the nursing home. This raises the fact we have a fundamental problem in the current model and how we support the elder care sector. It is very important we have a debate on this issue to speak about how it is funded. Clearly it is not funded enough at present. Riverbrook has the very best standards, and we must also debate how we ensure we have the best standards across the sector. This includes pay and conditions and a voice for workers. This is something we all have to face up to as a society. I urge the Acting Leader to consider a debate on elder care in the near future so we can all contribute to it.

On behalf of the Labour Party group, I welcome the Lithuanian ambassador to the House. I am surprised to see Senators going at each other in the Chamber. It is not particularly helpful. The vitriol is better left outside the Chamber rather than having it in here. However, I want to put on the record that I have also spoken to people and I believe what they have told me. I see no reason not to believe what they have told me. I want to put this very firmly on the record. I believe Together for Safety and I believe the testimony they have given me.

Will the Acting Leader write to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and ask him for an update on the secretarial assistant pay issue? When the Minister was in the House last year he told us he would take a recommendation from the commission on the very valid pay claim of secretarial assistants. We all stood in support of this. I understand such a recommendation has been made. I also understand that SIPTU worker representatives are progressing through a lengthy and at times frustrating industrial relations process. This process is something they should not have to go through. They would not need to go through it if the Minister simply adopted the recommendations of the commission. Will the acting leader write to the Minister and ask him whether he has received this recommendation and whether he will implement a policy of equal pay for equal work as he committed to in this House?

It is no secret the Labour Party has long been banging the drum for flexible work. There is a clear appetite among the public for it. It would be remiss of me not to mention flexibility with regard to the higher and further education sector and learning opportunities and reflect on some of the concerns students have raised with me, particularly disabled students. They are concerned about the inherent ableism in the system and how, over the past two years, we managed to find a way to facilitate students, namely, by remote and flexible learning. Many disabled students benefited from remote learning during lockdown. How will we learn from the past two years about how we can include students in learning settings? Of course there needs to be more training for this, and for it to be a permanent option there need to be more teachers and more equipment. I know staff in the sector are already overworked and underpaid. However, we cannot allow this to be an excuse to return to excluding disabled students, parents or carers from accessing education. The onus has to be on the Minister to ensure funding and resourcing are in place for remote or hybrid learning. Otherwise we will simply have given students a taste of how things could be for them but have decided it is too much bother to facilitate them. That is not good enough.

I was not planning on raising this issue but I want to say when I was on the bus into work this morning there was a kerfuffle over a passenger not wearing a mask. The ethics and morality of the debate aside, and I will not go into those, the abuse that was landed on the bus driver was unbelievable. I could not believe it. There was shouting and roaring. The person was so aggressive, laughing and shoving a phone into the bus driver's face. In the end, the bus driver could not go on driving. We all had to get off the bus and the Garda was called. It was absolutely disgusting how the person spoke to the bus driver. It was rotten. It was really nasty behaviour. No person out working should have to experience it. Solidarity with the workers who are facing this abuse every day. Up the workers.

I join my colleague, Senator Kyne, in raising Defence Forces issues. Last Sunday I had the privilege of attending the centenary celebration in Renmore Barracks to honour the 100-year anniversary of the barracks being taken over from the British and the green, white and orange flag being raised. The barracks has always played a huge part in the life of Galway city and in our communities and families. The vast majority of families in Galway city have a close connection to it and have immediate family members or close relatives who served in the barracks at one point or another. Galway is privileged and proud to be an Army town.

It is with regret that I say this morning that the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces published last week reflected what all Members are surely aware of, namely, that the Defence Forces have been weakened significantly over the past decade by continued underinvestment. The Defence Forces have lost many of their most experienced and capable members because of inadequate pay and conditions. The morale of the members has been greatly affected. This is not acceptable. It must be and is a priority for the Government. It must be addressed with urgency. This issue cannot be kicked down the road any further. There are a number of other significant issues in the report that must also be tackled, including the need for a greater focus on cybersecurity and enhanced naval capacity.

My colleague, Senator O'Loughlin, raised this matter in the Commencement debate yesterday. The Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, representing the Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, said a four to five month timeframe would be necessary to bring a considered and comprehensive proposal back to the Government. I understand there needs to be examination of the report but as far as I am concerned, a five-month delay before coming back with a proposal seems far too long given these issues have been raised continuously with all public representatives for years. Surely the Minister and departmental officials are well briefed on them.

I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and to request his attendance before this House at his earliest convenience.

I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange a debate in the House on the Future of Media Commission report. I understand that this report has been with the Government since last October. It has not surfaced around Leinster House. It has not gone to the joint Oireachtas committee responsible for discussing the report. I ask the Deputy Leader to find out where the report is at this point in time, and to ensure we have a debate on the future of the local media in this House at the very earliest opportunity. It is very urgent that we would have such a debate here. We all know quite well the services that local media provide in our communities. They do court reports and report on sports matches, including hurling, football, soccer and rugby. They bring the news to every community. They advertise for local communities and the activities that take place in local communities. They also publish death notices. We are all aware of these things and, to be honest, we all take them for granted. It is only when a media outlet closes or disappears that we miss them. This particularly affects older people will who are not au fait with getting all of their news on social media and through their mobile phone networks and so on. They all like to buy the local rag every week. They like to have it in their hand and to read it. I ask the Deputy Leader that at the earliest opportunity, but as a matter of urgency, she would find out where the report is at. It is disgraceful to think that it has been with the Government since last October given all of the pressure that has been put on over a long period of time by Members of this House and the Lower House to actually get a report. It is important that it would be brought to this House immediately and that we would have a debate on it.

The universal social charge, USC, has found itself in the spotlight once again. As we look at measures to combat the unsustainable rise in the cost of living, I believe we should be looking at the USC. The USC was introduced at the height of the financial crisis in December 2010 by the late Brian Lenihan of Fianna Fáil to help to shore up a huge hole in the public finances and to replace the income levy and the health levy. The USC now generates a tax revenue of around €4 billion per annum for the State. It is very much a progressive tax. In 2016, when Fine Gael promised to scrap the USC it was the case that 75% of the USC revenue raised, which was €3 billion, came from the top 20% of earners, and 43% came from those earning more than €100,000 per annum. When it was first introduced, it applied to all income over €4,000. The threshold was increased in later budgets and is currently €13,000. The increase in the lower threshold was due to the economy no longer being as dire as it was in 2011. That precedent of raising the threshold is one that can be looked at again. In 2011 we had a 15.6% unemployment rate. Today it is 5.4%. Effectively, two thirds of the people who were unemployed in 2011 are now employed. It is all very well to offer one-off bonuses and payments to try to offset the cost of living, but why not cut out the middleman? Why tax families and individuals and then make a big show of giving a portion of it back to them? Just let them keep their own money. Can we have a debate in this House on the pros and cons of raising the threshold, perhaps to €25,000? This would allow people on lower incomes to retain €500 to €600 annually of their own money and put this towards the cost of living essentials.

I will conclude by offering my sympathies to Deputy Verona Murphy, whose mother is to be buried this morning. I extend my sympathies from the House. I am very sorry.

I thank Senator Keogan. We send our condolences to Deputy Verona Murphy and all her family.

I welcome the publication of the review of the accommodation for victims of domestic violence. Across all parties, Members have been pushing for more refuge spaces and more improvements in domestic violence supports at all levels. I really welcome the publication of that review this morning, which highlights that there will be a new agency to support victims of domestic violence, with priority areas for refuges. More than 50 new family spaces have been announced to be prioritised in Sligo, Cavan, Cork, Longford, Balbriggan and elsewhere. This is movement. This is the Government prioritising the gender-based violence issue and making sure that we have the action plan, the supports and the systems in place when the Government announces in April the third strategy against gender-based and domestic violence. It is so important and all of us across this House and the Lower House have been working on this issue. I congratulate all of my Government colleagues on all of the work that they do and I also thank my Opposition colleagues. This is too big an issue to make politics out of it, and I welcome of all of the work that the Government is doing on it.

I welcome the €680,000 announced under the rural regeneration funds for Castlerea, County Roscommon. A state-of-the-art food training centre in Castlerea, An Chistin, trains the most amazing chefs and others in the catering business. As well as that, they want to look at food incubator units where start-ups and businesses can come in and start up their business in a place with a lot of support.

I also want to thank the Castlerea enterprise team. They have an enterprise centre that is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., where one can go in and hot-desk. We also have the Enterprise Kiltullagh centre, which is another fantastic high-speed broadband enterprise centre in Ballinlough, County Roscommon. As with the Castlerea enterprises, it is crucial that we support our micro-enterprises. Agrifood is a huge industry in Ireland and it is important to be able to support food businesses. Businesses in the drinks industry have also really taken off we can see how Irish whiskey does so well abroad. When it comes to places like small regional towns, we have a great opportunity to show how we are building on the agriculture and the fantastic farming in local areas and driving local food producers who will also benefit from this type of support.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Department of Rural and Community Development. This funding is following on from rural development funding in 2019 of €1.5 million to develop this centre. It is absolutely crucial and I must say well done to the Castlerea enterprise team. I really look forward to inviting all Members in the House to have a fantastic taste sensation in Castlerea, along with the Night & Day music festival that will take place in Castlerea in September.

We are four weeks away from St. Patrick's Day. Communities up and down the length of the country are putting plans together for St. Patrick's Day parades. One of the big issues we have come across, particularly in the past 48 hours, is St. Patrick's Day parades trying to get insurance. Quotations have been received of anything from €1,800 to nearly €3,000 to cover a parade for the day. This would be for a parade that could last less than 90 minutes. This is a very significant burden on these communities as they try to celebrate and acknowledge our patron saint. It is a very important day and especially after Covid. It is the first real sign that we can get out there and show our real national identity.

I am very concerned about the insurance levies that have been put on small community organisations. Insurance costs in Ireland have been an issue for many years. They have affected the community base in so many ways. This issue could have a huge impact on how we celebrate St. Patrick's Day. We need real government intervention to make sure we have the opportunity for these community groups to hold their St. Patrick's Day parades. We can do one of two things - we can bring forward a scheme to help groups to pay for their insurance or, more importantly, we can talk to the insurance companies at a national level to make sure affordable insurance costs are brought forward. A quote of €3,000 for small communities in west Cork this morning is not appropriate for insurance for these St. Patrick's Day parades. They are part of our heritage and they are part of what we do. We need to support communities as they try to show what we really do best, which is to celebrate Ireland and our Irish identity.

I listened to the Leader on "Morning Ireland" earlier. I am conscious that she is not present and I would obviously prefer to direct my comments to her. With regard to the content of that interview this morning, everybody is entitled to express frustration about how an event is organised but I very much believe that a line was crossed because it was suggested that an advocacy body in this country that receives State funding to ensure it can be an independent voice and a thorn in the side of Government was a State body. There was an inference that, because if is getting State funding, it should be follow the Government line. That is not acceptable and that crosses a line. The National Women's Council of Ireland, NWCI, has worked with people from all parties and none over many years and, if it was not for its work, we would not have seen so much social change in this country over that time. As a member of the Labour Party, I am proud that men in my party have taken women's views seriously but, let us be frank, men in other parties have not always done so. It is the work of the council, which works with women from all parties and none but which is primarily a voice on its own, that has led social change in this country. An inference was drawn with regard to its funding. We have seen this previously. I have raised in this House the matter of veiled threats being made about funding when people on drugs task forces spoke out about State policy. We also witnessed this with regard to An Taisce last year. Crossing that line and making out that independent bodies are not entitled to secure funding should they take a view that is somehow at odds with that of the Government is simply not on. It is important to say that this afternoon.

In the first instance, I congratulate Liath restaurant in Blackrock which was today awarded a second Michelin star. A very small number of restaurants in this country are operating at that level. In fact, there are only four, three of which are in Dublin. Liath is in the suburbs of Dublin, in Blackrock. On the face of it, it is a modest restaurant. It is certainly a small one, with approximately 20 covers. However, it operates at a level of excellence that is remarkable. As we see, Michael's restaurant is opening in Blackrock. I hope it will be at the core of a foodie destination in Blackrock, the likes of which we have in Monkstown and other places in the Dún Laoghaire area. I congratulate Damien Grey and his team on their excellence and hard work, which has borne fruit today with their second Michelin star.

I also wish to raise the identification by the Irish Pharmacy Union of an issue that is coming down the road. There are approximately 6,700 practising pharmacists in this country. We saw how valuable they were in delivering vaccinations during the Covid crisis, which they continue to do. We are very grateful to them. With population growth and the retirement of existing pharmacists, there will be an issue with the number of pharmacists we have in the coming years. We also have that issue with regard to doctors and nurses. It is important to identify the issue this a far way out because it takes approximately five years to train pharmacists and to get them into a shop and dispensing medicines. When we know at this remove that this problem is coming down the road, it is incumbent on the Government to take action. There are only three pharmacy schools in Ireland. These are in Trinity College Dublin, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin, and University College Cork. It is high time that we considered establishing a fourth, perhaps in the National University of Ireland, Galway, Maynooth University or University College Dublin. It does not matter where it is. There were 165 trainee pharmacists last year. That only accounts for a 2.4% increase in the number of registered pharmacists. We know this issue is coming and we know we have to take action. Could we facilitate a debate with the Minister for Health to highlight to him the need to put in place another pharmacy school to ensure we have the appropriate number in time?

I will begin by addressing the remarks regarding the Leader and her interview this morning. I utterly reject the suggestion that any veiled threat was made and any suggestion that the Leader was doing anything of that kind. The fact is that the NWCI is a national body to represent the views, and advance the cause, of women throughout our country. It is not a partisan body or political party. It should conduct itself in a manner that respects the work of women of all political views, not just some. I resent the suggestion that the Leader said anything otherwise. She drew equivalence between Government's funding of that body and its funding of many others throughout this country that stand up and criticise Government. That is part of our democratic State and our desire as a Government and State to be absolutely transparent. We sponsor bodies that critique Government but for the council to turn women's issues into a partisan issue and not to respect the women of this House in the three Government parties, including the Deputy Leader, who do remarkable work every day, is a disgrace, to be perfectly honest.

I have 30 seconds left and will now say what I was actually going to say. I congratulate Our Lady of Hope School in Drimnagh, which opened this morning. It is a special school. A great amount of work was done, most particularly by Margaret Jane Lowndes and Helen Holmes of the Dublin 12 campaign for a special autism school. It was fantastic to see the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, open that school this morning. The work continues. The constituency of Dublin South-Central still needs more schools. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is working on that. Next week, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is hosting a meeting with representatives of community healthcare organisation, CHO, 7 and me to discuss the lack of services in Dublin 12 for children with autism. The fight continues. Here are more women in government doing more work to support mothers who are calling out issues. We are doing that all of the time.

I 100% support the comments of Senator Seery Kearney in support of our Leader, my party colleague, Senator Doherty's comments on "Morning Ireland" earlier. They were well said.

I also wish to speak to the issue of third-level education. I would like a debate with the Minister, Deputy Harris, to discuss the future. There are many plans and there are many changes to come in respect of third-level education but the dramatic increase in the cost of living over recent years, and in the past 12 months in particular, is having a significant impact on students and their families. Students are unable to pay high rents and the reality is that, unless students from Longford go to the Technological University of the Shannon, TUS, in Athlone, they will have to travel a distance and pay rent. While I welcome the reduction in transport costs announced in the past week, the reality is that a significant number of students need a part-time job of at least ten to 20 hours a week if they are to afford to stay in college. We have probably the highest fees in the EU. Postgraduate students may receive a Student Universal Support Ireland grant but they do not receive the monthly maintenance grant, which is unfair. Those students need to be entitled to receive that as well. The cost of living in Ireland is too high. Many people make a decision to travel outside the country to undertake third-level education. It actually costs them less to get a university degree in another country rather than their own. I would like the Minister to come to the House. There are extremely positive changes coming from his Department and he is an excellent Minister. I would like him to come in to discuss the future plans for third-level education.

I commend the Cathaoirleach on yesterday's excellent launch of Seanad100. I wish the initiative every success. I will raise a very important matter. Despite the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, it has come to my attention that the playing of games, and especially inter-school competitions at primary school level, has not recommenced. This does a huge disservice to the young boys and girls across Cumann na mBunscol schools, particularly in Cork city and county. I pay tribute to Cumann na mBunscol in Cork city and county. I ask the Deputy Leader, all Members and Government to support and advocate for a return to play activity and primary school games for our primary school students. I will refer to Sciath na Scol in Cork.

It is an excellent organisation, run by teachers on a voluntary basis, co-ordinating and scheduling games, and giving young boys and girls, the stars of the future, an opportunity to play and represent their clubs, schools and parishes in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Páirc Uí Rinn and in intercounty games in the Munster championship season. I ask that we invite the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, and the Minister, Deputy Foley, to come to the House to discuss this. I think we would all agree that we should allow for a return to play in primary school competitions. It is already happening in clubs, where inter-club competition is back, at post-primary level with the Dr. Harty Cup and Corn Uí Mhuirí, and in rugby. Why can it not happen at primary schools? I ask for the House's support with that.

Well done to the Cathaoirleach and to the team here in Leinster House on the lovely event yesterday. We all learned something from it. There was super engagement between our colleague, Senator Norris, and former President and Senator, Mary Robinson. I look forward to an enjoyable Seanad100 over the coming months.

The announcement last week of a 20% reduction in the cost of public transport is welcome. I have spoken on a number of occasions in this House about equality of transport costs and I believe the Seanad should take the lead on it. Fares to travel between Ennis and Limerick or Galway are dearer than between Maynooth and Dublin. What is good for one should be good for everybody. We need equality of public transport costs throughout the country to encourage people to use the network.

On a related matter, many students who are studying in Cork, whether in University College Cork or in other colleges, and people who work in Cork may now be living in places such as Thurles, Limerick Junction, Limerick City, or Ennis, but they cannot get to Cork from anywhere along the Dublin rail line until the first train at 9.40 a.m. If people in college in Cork have a 9 a.m. lecture and want to commute from Thurles to Cork, they cannot do so. I call on Irish Rail to add an extra service between Dublin and Cork that would leave at 6 a.m. and get in at 8.30 a.m. It would facilitate every stop along the line and people from Ennis and Limerick who want to commute to Cork to start their job or college at 9 a.m. Trains from Cork to Dublin leave at 5 a.m., 5.30 a.m. or 6 a.m. I regularly get them myself, connecting from Ennis. Irish Rail needs to add a service to the Dublin-Cork line, which needs to leave at 5.30 a.m. or 6 a.m. to get people who cannot afford rent or accommodation or who wish to continue to live at home in to do a day's study or work in Cork.

I welcome two announcements over the past 24 hours. Yesterday, Cahir, County Tipperary, was announced as being the best location in Europe in which to film. It won the European Film Commissions Network's best filming location award. It is significant for Cahir and especially for Cahir Castle. Films have been produced at the beautiful setting for years, which will only increase over the next years. It attracts tourists to the region, along with the blueway and St. Declan's Way between Cashel and Ardmore, County Waterford. It is significant and I congratulate the Office of Public Works and Eleanor Morrissey, who is the site manager at Cahir Castle.

I welcome the decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the decision about building the cheese plant on the Kilkenny-Waterford border. This plant was meant to be started in 2019 and to be completed this year. It has been held up by constant objections by elements in An Taisce who, for the past number of years, have shown that they are anti-business, anti-farmer and anti-rural. I really hope that today's judgment is the final decision that needs to be made on this plant. This will be a world standard investment in the south east region. Farmers in my community in Tipperary have invested in their herd on the back of this investment. In fairness to Glanbia, it is still committed to doing this even with the increases in costs of building between when it was meant to be built and now. If there had not been as many objections, this would have been built at a much cheaper cost and would be open this year. I welcome that the company will still build the plant and will hopefully complete it by 2024. This needs to be the end to certain elements of An Taisce objecting to serious investment in my region and to farmers in my county.

I raise international students' health insurance. It was one of the first issues that I raised following my election to the Seanad. On 5 March 2021, I introduced a Bill specifically to deal with the issue. At the time, I was assured that the issue was being addressed. There is a problem at the Department of Justice where, as part of the visa requirements for non-EEA students who are here for more than one year, they must purchase a particular form of health insurance. The cost of that health insurance has increased significantly. I believe my Bill would have been one way to address it but I was convinced that work was being done by others to address it. I have discovered that as with any issue that falls between a number of Departments, trying to get a final answer becomes impossible. In this case, it falls between the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department of Health. The blockage now seems to be coming from the Department of Justice.

I tabled a Commencement matter on 9 December, which was replied to by the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who said, "Perhaps in two months, or certainly at some time next year, this issue will be resolved." When the Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill came before this House, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, indicated that there would be positive news early next year on this issue. I have had constant contact with the Departments of Health and Justice without getting a resolution. I ask that the Deputy Leader write to the Minister for Justice on behalf of the House to request clarity on this issue. It is causing much concern for international students and for higher education institutions because they cannot provide the necessary answers.

I appreciate the Cathaoirleach letting me speak this afternoon. I want to report a new form of cyberattack that is taking place. I have just been the subject of one. I got a message from AIB on the AIB telephone number this morning, telling me that my card had been used in Manchester and asking me to log on and put my details through. After I looked at the first page, I said that it was not right and rang AIB's fraud department. It is a fraudulent text message, which is going out all over the place. It looks and feels as if it came from AIB. I have been told that it has reset all my security settings and to expect phone calls over the coming days from AIB's fraud department, checking up to update my details and ask me for personal details. I am likely to have a caller to my house, looking for me to hand over my card, as fraud has taken place with my card. The public really needs to know this. The banks have to step up and start making these things very public when they happen. They have to stop hiding behind it and instead let people know as quickly as they can.

I know the Acting Leader has an interest in the military service allowance for soldiers who served for years and retired. I have a letter here from a retired commandant who is 78 years old. He was denied his allowance because a deal was done back in 1990 that cut off entitlement to the allowance and one's pension prior to that date. The Acting Leader and I might raise this together, because I know she has an interest in this herself. We might get to the bottom of it and resolve it. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his forbearance.

I thank all Senators who engaged with today's Order of Business. There were a number of very positive comments regarding yesterday's event marking Seanad 100 and thanks expressed to the Cathaoirleach for his leadership in organising that as well as all of the officials. It was lovely to see Senator Norris and former President Mary Robinson engaging with us on the relevance and importance of the Seanad as we move forward.

There were a number of very warm welcomes to the ambassador for Lithuania. Senators wished him well and highlighted the contribution of so many Lithuanian people to our communities and society in Ireland.

Senator O'Donovan raised the issue of epilepsy awareness week, and spoke about his diagnosis and the fact there are a minimum of 40,000 people in Ireland who have epilepsy. He sought a debate on the matter. The campaign that Epilepsy Ireland has maintained over the past week has been good and involves the concept of time, safe and stay. We all need to learn more about all of these conditions because many we represent have them. The Senator also referenced Mary Robinson's comments yesterday on climate change and that we as a Seanad have an opportunity to be leaders in this area. Yesterday, there were debates on climate change and carbon budgets. It was great to see so many interact with those debates.

Senators Kyne and Crowe spoke about Renmore Barracks and the event held last weekend to celebrate their handing over. I saw some of the photographs online and it seemed to be a lovely event. The Senators raised the issues of defence capabilities, the commission and the 69 recommendations many of us have mentioned in the House. There is no doubt we need to have a debate in this House on that report, in particular recruitment and retention. In my view, it should not take five months for the Minister to read the report because there is nothing in it of which he, his officials or his advisers would not be aware. I was in Galway for a march on loyalty about three years ago and had the opportunity to meet many personnel. They are very engaged people, as are all of our Defence Forces personnel around the country.

Senator Mullen spoke about the motion on safe access zones. I wish to correct the Senator because he said it was a Sinn Féin motion. Many across the House from different parties and none countersigned the motion. It was a motion that was reflective of a majority of Senators within-----

Understood. To correct Senator O'Loughlin, it is legislation.

I am making a point. There is no need to rehash the whole debate around the Together for Safety group or safe access zones because we had that debate in the House last week. The Minister has clearly indicated he is legislating for that and, in my view, rightly so.

Senator Gavan highlighted the good news for Castleconnell regarding Nelson's Cross junction and sports funding. It is wonderful to see our Ministers providing so much funding around the country. Some €600 million in funding for roads was announced yesterday and €143.8 million in sports capital funding was announced last week. It is important to say that because it is about supporting local communities and volunteers. The Senator made the point that people power is important, and I agree with him. I commend the people of Castleconnell. He also raised the issue of a local nursing home. I do not have any information on that and suggest he request a Commencement matter debate. I have no doubt we will take up the issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. Nursing homes play a significant role in the communities they serve. It important people are in nursing homes in areas close to their families and visitors, now that we are getting back to normal and visits can occur more regularly.

Senator Hoey spoke about the principle of equal pay for equal work, with which we all agree, the need to have flexible work, and the importance of having flexible study situations for people with disabilities. I agree with her. There have been a number of calls for debates on different aspects of higher education, most particularly around the Cassells report. We should ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, to come to the House for a debate. It is one area we can raise with him when he comes here. Senator Hoey also spoke about an incident she experienced today regarding the abuse of a bus driver. It is absolutely shocking. For those who work in our communities, towns and cities, providing a transport system to enable people to get to work, college and school, to be treated like that is appalling. We need to call it out and show our support and solidarity for workers who are subjected to this abuse. It is shocking. I offer my apologies, on behalf of this House, to the bus driver, any bus driver or anybody else who is at the receiving end of that kind of horrific abuse.

Senator Burke raised the future of media funding report, which apparently has been with the Government since last October. He is correct in what he said. Our local media provide a fantastic service to our communities and all public representatives, be they national or local. I think of KFM, the Leinster Leader or The Kildare Nationalist, which all provide an excellent service and, generally, a very fair service to our public representatives. We need to ask where the report is and look for a debate in the House on that.

Senator Keogan raised the issue of the USC and how difficult it is for people to pay it as the cost of living is going up. Every single bill is difficult. It is important to note it was good that the threshold was increased to make sure old age pensioners were not included. A further decision will not be made in this House, but we can ask for a debate and request the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, come to the House. The Senator also expressed her sympathy to Deputy Verona Murphy on a bereavement. We may be able to get the details.

Her mother, Ms Breda Murphy.

Our deepest sympathies go to Deputy Murphy on her mother's passing.

Senator McGreehan spoke about improvements in services for victims of domestic abuse and referred to the details announced today for a new agency, an increase in the number of refuges in the country and the supports needed for those refuges. That is important. She highlighted the need for everybody to work together on this, including Opposition and Government and all of the different agencies.

Senator Dolan spoke about regeneration for Castlerea and enterprise centres. She referred to a food incubator hub. Our agrifood industry is important. In the old Model School in Athy, County Kildare, we have a similar type of food hub to support and encourage new businesses to start out. The more incubators hub we can have around the country, the better. From what the Senator said, Castlerea seems to be the place to be in terms of the different types of festivals and so on.

Senator Lombard spoke about the St Patrick's Day festival and insurance. We are very lucky there are so many celebrations in this country for our national day at home and abroad. We all look forward to next year, when we can celebrate St. Brigid's day at home and abroad as well.

It is a nice time to be travelling.

Senator Lombard was correct in raising the point about the significant burden on our communities and volunteers who are, for the first time in three years, getting ready for St. Patrick's Day events. Insurance should be affordable. We will refer this to the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, and try to get some type of response.

Senator Sherlock raised the issue of an interview on "Morning Ireland" with the Leader.

I did not hear the interview so I will not comment on it, although I will make a few points. Senator Seery Kearney spoke and was supported by Senator Carrigy in rejecting the comments made. Senator Sherlock indicated the possibility that the Leader of the House was suggesting that independent funding should be dependent on supporting those in the Government. From what I have heard from Senator Seery Kearney, it seems that was not the case or what the Senator referred to.

The National Women's Council of Ireland is an independent body and, as Senator Sherlock has said, it has done excellent work on social change in this country. We completely acknowledge that. It should be independent. Government funding has never been contingent on support for the Government, no matter which party is in government, and it should not be. The issue, however, is about balance. If political representatives and women of different parties are to be involved with the event, all parties should be included. This is to make the point that all women are working together in this House and the Dáil in trying to make our country a better place for women. We are doing that day in and day out.

I articulated my concern about this yesterday on the radio. My concern is that the message being given to the women of this country is that women elected for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Green Party do not have a voice representing women. Whether the National Women's Council of Ireland intends it or not, it is unfortunately the message being given. It is a message being given to women and men voting for these parties or no party. Everybody's voice matters, so the event should either give a platform or rallying point for all parties and those elected with no party affiliation or else it should have no female public representatives. It could instead have people representing other organisations. This is a question of balance and diversity, and that must be stated.

We are not there yet.

Senator Ward spoke about Liath restaurant in Blackrock getting two Michelin stars, which is fantastic. I know Blackrock well as I went to college there and have family living there. It is one of my life's ambitions to get to Liath. Chapter One also received two Michelin stars.

Senator Ward will take Senator O'Loughlin there for lunch afterwards.

Numerous restaurants around the country received Michelin stars and awards yesterday, which is wonderful. We are encouraging visitors to come to our shores so having really high-quality food in restaurants is important. For those of us in the country, now that restaurants are open and back for business, it is wonderful to see the level of quality and high standards we have.

I hope we will not see post-Covid grade inflation in them.

Please stop interrupting.

Senator Ward also mentioned the fact that we only have three pharmacy schools and we need a fourth. He asked for a debate with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, but perhaps that debate should be with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. In discussing the Cassells report and funding for higher level, we should include the matter in the brief that we could ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, to address.

Senator Seery Kearney also congratulated Our Lady of Hope School in Crumlin on its new special school. It is wonderful to see and I have seen the campaign that parents in Dublin 12 carried out in trying to get that special school operational. As the Senator has said, the work is continuing but I say "well done" to all the people involved. Again, it is an example of people power.

Senator Carrigy spoke about the cost of living for students and that is something we will debate with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. I should mention that a commitment was given that we would expand the SUSI grant and that is absolutely needed, particularly for those students who must travel from their towns and cities to be able to go to college. That must be a priority.

Senator Buttimer spoke about the lifting of restrictions and the fact that primary schools have not commenced their return to play activity and games. I had not realised these activities had not recommenced and they most definitely should. Cumann na mBunscol does incredibly valuable work in co-ordinating and scheduling games. This is a vital part of young people's lives growing up in school. It is an opportunity to be part of a team and compete against others. It is part of sporting life and more, so we will write to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State with responsibility for sports, Deputy Chambers, to ask that the activities be restarted immediately. We thank all the volunteers involved in Cumann na mBunscol and I remember refereeing matches many years ago. The parents nearly ran me off the pitch and I was scared by it.

Senator Conway spoke about equality in the cost of transport. He is 100% correct in encouraging people to use transport and I addressed this with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, when he spoke in the House yesterday. The Senator also spoke about the need to add an extra service from Dublin to Cork to ensure young and old people can get into Cork for work or college. That is certainly something we should take up with the National Transport Authority. We will support that.

Senator Ahearn mentioned that Cahir Castle was awarded the title of best film location in Europe, which is a wonderful accolade. We wish the town well with the films that will be made there. The Senator also mentioned the decision by the Supreme Court on the proposed Glanbia cheese factory, which should have been started in 2019. It was held up with challenges right along the way and of course the cost of building has absolutely increased. It has been a very difficult time for the company but this must be good for farmers and local communities. It will bring a very large investment to the area and we wish it well.

Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke about international student health insurance, which he has raised many times. I have heard him raise that subject both in this House and in other meetings. That it seems to be falling between Departments is most frustrating and I certainly know that feeling. We will seek a response from the Department of Justice, as from what I understand by the Senator's comments, it is currently under its remit. We will certainly seek clarification in that regard.

Senator Craughwell highlighted a new type of fraud or scam. He is correct in saying how shocking is the number of scams out there. We should highlight that the new scam relates to AIB. On foot of this, AIB will contact people by phone and the best of luck to the staff in doing so. I am not sure I would answer any questions on the phone from anybody purporting to be from a bank. The work must happen nonetheless, whether it is with personal calls or by asking people to a local branch. They would know there is safety and security in answering those questions in a bank. Cybersecurity concerns are expanding and this gets more frightening all the time.

The Senator also raised the question of the military service allowance and the cut-off for entitlements. As the Senator knows, we have all looked for a debate in this House on the commission's report. Perhaps the matter could be discussed on the Commencement, and I would be happy to share it with the Senator.

Senator O'Loughlin rightly corrected me on the provenance of the Bill. The suggestion was made I was heckling her but I was merely offering a correction and that the piece in question is legislation as opposed to a motion. Being so flawed and passing Committee Stage, this is much more serious, I am afraid. If it was just a motion, things would not be so bad. I was not heckling the Senator. I was just offering a correction.

There could be some divine intervention.

We could all do with a bit of that.

Order of Business agreed to.
Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ag 12.50 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ag 1 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 12.50 p.m. and resumed at 1 p.m.
Barr
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