Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
In the space of one week the Government has missed two deadlines for a decision on the leaving certificate. Will the Taoiseach acknowledge the real distress this dithering and indecision has caused for leaving certificate students and their families? Will he confirm that we will have an announcement today, that it will bring the kind of clarity leaving certificate students need and that it will afford them the level of choice required after two academic years marked by disruption? Will the Taoiseach also confirm what the plans are for the junior certificate and whether students and children will be returning to schools on 1 March? There has been speculation and rumour on this and I suspect a date has been thrown out without any real substantive planning or even public health advice, although I hope I am wrong. I hope the Taoiseach will answer me on those three matters of the leaving certificate, the junior certificate and the return to school.
I have missed no deadlines. I said this week that we want to bring clarity for the leaving certificate cohort of 2021 and that is the priority. I recall the Deputy and her spokesman on education calling for consultation with all the partners in education on related issues as far back as January. The Deputy cannot have it both ways. She talked of the Government dithering and so on. The Government is engaged in substantiative discussions with all the partners in education: students, parents, teachers and the management bodies. Covid-19 has upended all our lives, nowhere more so than with education. It caused disruption last year to the ordinary process of education in schools. We successfully got schools reopened from September to December. We have delayed the reopening of schools because of Covid-19 and the variant. We will be giving that consideration in terms of the phased return of schools. I accept it is vital that clarity is brought to the situation but the Government has rightly engaged in consultation with all involved. We do not blame any sector. This is difficult for all concerned because of Covid-19.
There must be a debate in this House on the roll-out of the vaccination programme and the identification of the national vaccination centres. Those were announced this week but unfortunately there will be no debate on it this week in the House. Monday's announcement, which should have been a good news story, has actually turned into a bit of a mess.
The Taoiseach will know that Drogheda, which is Ireland's largest town and has a hinterland population of 85,000 people, does not have and will not be getting a vaccination centre. Is it a coincidence that County Wicklow, which has a similar population to County Louth, has two centres and County Louth has only one which is in Dundalk? I therefore ask if the criteria are that a Minister must occupy a seat in the constituency. Some centres which were announced do not actually have any contracts at this point. This is not a way to do business and I hope the Taoiseach accepts that. My party colleague Councillor Conor Sheehan in Limerick has said the centre serving Limerick-----
I have no difficulty with facilitating a centre in Drogheda, none at all. The Health Service Executive has facilitated this. Different HSE regions have presumably sent in their submissions from different locations. The bulk of people, by the way, will be vaccinated in their GPs' surgeries when we get to the mass vaccination stage. Obviously the vaccination centres will augment and supplement that. There is no necessity for this to be turned into a political football either, to be fair to all concerned. Representations are being made by people in different locations. I think they will be taken on board. There has been no ministerial involvement, or indeed Government involvement, in the identification of vaccination centres. There is no necessity for it. I am serious.
There has not been and there does not need to be. Again, what is the objective here? The objective is for Government, through the national task force and the Health Service Executive-----
Let us get people vaccinated. Let us do it with a unity of purpose and that is the spirit in which I will pursue this. Deputy Nash has raised an issue in respect of Drogheda and I will put it to the HSE that there is a concern about Drogheda.
Forty years ago, 48 young people went for a night out to the Stardust nightclub and never came home as a result of the horrific fire which took their young lives. Their families and loved ones are still waiting for answers and justice. The delay to the Stardust inquest commencing, which is due to the Department of Justice not releasing funds, is absolutely reprehensible. Releasing funding to allow the legal team of the families to carry out research in preparation is essential. We should be following the good practice established at the Hillsborough inquest. Too many parents and survivors have died already without receiving justice and answers for their loved ones. The Minister for Justice needs to meet and engage with the legal representative of these families to resolve this without any further delay. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Justice to meet immediately with the legal representative of the families to resolve the issues with funding so the inquest can begin?
The legal representative has made that assertion. The Deputy is correct in saying that everything we can do must be done to bring closure, if at all possible, to the families of those who died horrifically in what was the worst and most horrific event in my living memory as far as the number of people who died is concerned. I remember well it happening, as a young person, and the sense of horror that spread throughout the country and the search for justice, the truth and answers. Funding has been made available. My understanding is that it may be the precise nature of how that funding has been allocated or the basis on which it is being allocated to legal firms. I will pursue this with the Minister for Justice and ask her to respond to the Deputy.
More than 8,000 Covid cases between the middle of November and the first week of February involve students aged 16 and over. That is higher than any other section of the population with the exception of healthcare workers. On health and safety grounds there is now a strong case that leaving certificate students should be the last students back into the classroom. Despite this, there are diehard supporters of the traditional leaving certificate who want to force students back to school next week, and if not next week then the week after. Why? It is to fit in with an exam timetable: week one, back in school; week two, the mocks. Health, including mental health, is more important than exams. The exams should be cancelled, the certificate given to every student and a place at third level offered to every student who wants one. Students can then be brought back when it is safe to do so. Given the variant and the high number of cases among the student cohort aged 16 years and over, why would the Government even entertain the idea of a return to class for leaving certificate students in the next fortnight?
The Government is committed to giving choice to students. Some students would like the option of sitting the traditional leaving certificate or as close to it as possible. The Deputy has his views on the best model of assessment in educational terms but an emergency like this should not be used just to throw out a particular model. We believe choice should be given and that is the basis upon which the Minister has engaged with the unions. The unions are very committed to the traditional format of the leaving certificate and it is a position they have asserted on a continuous basis. The Government's view is also that students require choice here and parallel options similar to what was provided last year. There is not a place in third level for everybody who wants one. Deputy Barry has articulated a wonderful catchphrase. It sounds great. However, in reality it is not possible at all.
We will provide additional places, as we did last year, to try to facilitate students who wish to progress to training, apprenticeships or other forms of further or higher education.
Two weeks ago, people gathered for the 29th anniversary of a gun attack on the Ormeau Road in 1992 in which people were murdered by loyalist paramilitaries. The PSNI descended on that gathering in an extremely heavy-handed manner. Its officers came down on the families affected by and survivors of that loyalist atrocity like a ton of bricks. One police officer has been suspended and another has been repositioned. The Chief Constable of the PSNI has apologised. It is just another example of heavy-handed and political policing by the PSNI. Many nationalist communities in the North of Ireland have experienced such policing in recent times. Sinn Féin and the SDLP have intermittently raised this issue but there has been no recent reform of the PSNI. Has the Taoiseach spoken to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about this issue? Has he called for root-and-branch reform of the PSNI such that the police force is acceptable to both communities?
I believe the policing dispensation or outcome of the Good Friday Agreement was one of the most radical transformations that occurred, given what had been the situation prior to that. What happened on the Ormeau Road was wrong, but there are mechanisms in place to deal with that and to hold those responsible accountable. There is the ombudsman for policing and the Policing Authority and we should use those mechanisms rather than immediately reaching for the line of undermining confidence in the new policing structures because that has consequences too in terms of going backwards in relation to policing.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has been engaged in terms of a wide range of issues, including this issue, with both the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, indeed, all of the parties.
Four years ago, the Rural Independent Group tabled a motion to stop the madness of the black hole that is the national children's hospital. The motion gave the Dáil an opportunity to vote against what was going on. The confidence and supply arrangement was in place at the time and the Taoiseach's party supported and voted with the Government to continue the madness of a project that was meant to cost €400 million but which is now reaching €2 billion or more in a location with no access for a helipad, no parking spaces and no proper road access due to congestion. His party is continuing to support the project. The equipment in the hospital will be obsolete by the time it is finished. We are now being told it will be ready in 2024. I know Mr. Fred Barry has left the outfit. Will the Taoiseach please facilitate a meaningful debate in the House on what is going on, the scandalous overrun in terms of money and the scandalous neglect and delay to services for the sickest of children?
The Shannon Group has now been without a chairman for six months at a time of unprecedented challenge to the group. There are no planes going into or out of Shannon other than US military planes which, of course, are creating their own controversy because they seem to not have to adhere to Covid rules. The tourism sector is on its knees and the Shannon Heritage sites are shut. Commercial property faces its own challenge. The fiasco yesterday involving the appointment of a man with no ostensible experience in any of these areas really undermines any claim the Government has of commitment to Shannon or the wider region. Of course, Shannon is instrumental right across the west of Ireland. When will the Government appoint a person with the required experience to provide strategic direction to the Shannon Group?
I share Deputy McNamara's concern regarding the aviation sector more generally . Obviously, it is a victim of Covid and the impact of the pandemic on travel more generally not just here, but globally.
Three people came forward out of that process and a person was selected. Basically, certain unacceptable tweets then emerged. The Minister took very quick action to deal with that and he will be dealing with the successor very quickly indeed as well.
I said an appointment will be made very quickly. The Minister will revert to the Deputy in that regard.
On the issue raised by Deputy Mattie McGrath, stopping a project in midstream does not make a whole lot of sense either. The overall objective-----
The Government is coming up to eight months in office. It has to deal with this project, which has been under way for several years. The objective of everybody involved with the project was to provide a state-of-the-art facility for the children of the nation now and into the future. Without question, it has dragged on too long and it has incurred excessive costs as well. The Government will have to deal with that.