Tuesday, 21 January 2020
Business of Seanad: Motion
I am pleased to have an opportunity on a day such as this to make a few remarks, to show appreciation and to make one or two points. Much correct and worthy appreciation and thanks have been expressed by other Senators to colleagues here and in the other House and to staff, etc., so I will not go through that in any detail. Many people with disabilities and other marginalised groups, whom it has been my honour to bring into this House in the last term, have particularly noted the welcome and support they have got from staff and from Members of both Houses. That is important. Both of these Houses are for the people of Ireland. It is valuable to be able to bring people and groups into committees to be listened to. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was unanimously ratified by the Dáil two years ago on foot of a motion from the Government. I very much appreciated that and it was a major step forward.
I will make a few points about that in a minute or two but the work Senator Kelleher has mentioned about the Oireachtas disability group is related to that. I have had the honour of chairing it and former Deputy Ó Caoláin has been a great partner as the leas-chathaoirleach. I want to particularly pay tribute to him and to his work, which is not just tied to what he has done as a member of a party. His heart and soul has been in that for all of his life. In that regard, I send him my condolences and that of the Oireachtas disability group organisation and membership on the death of his beloved brother, Dermot, before Christmas.My colleagues in the Civil Engagement group would certainly share that sentiment.
The organisations involved with the Oireachtas disability group include: Disability Federation of Ireland, a not-for-profit association; Inclusion Ireland; Independent Living Movement Ireland; and the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies. They have played an important part. The Seanad will see in the coming weeks the tenor and results of the work done collaboratively and cohesively.
Senator O'Reilly spoke effectively and memorably about family. I am eternally grateful for the compromises made by and the support and understanding of those who are close to me, especially my wife, Liz, and my daughter, Ruth, as well as many others.
Senator Victor Boyhan made a strong reference to councillors. My eyes were opened when I met councillors. I grew up with the "Hall's Pictorial Weekly" caricature of councillors. These people may be homely and local and have particular accents and a way of expressing themselves in doing their work, but they are the bedrock of democracy at local level. I am concerned that their role is not supported as best as it could be. In parallel with councillors, we should, as Senator Freeman and others stated, keep in mind all of the organisations - including local and national groups in the various areas of civic participation - that are equally a part of our democratic process. That aspect needs to be better understood.
I am most thankful for the support I received from the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA, in producing my Community Participation (Disability) (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. OPLA provides an excellent example of the type of service that can be provided to Members of both Houses, regardless of their parties or backgrounds. I perish the thought when I consider how things were done before such a service existed.
The State, the Dáil and the Government have unanimously stated that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is to be implemented. That puts it in a different place. It is not a case of whether we should proceed, but how we should do so. It is a technical issue now. I wish to make a number of very particular points about how to make progress. Since the convention takes the form of an international treaty that we have taken on board and due to the fact that this is both a national issue and an issue for every household - hopefully not every day but there is no escaping that someday it will be - it has to be afforded the same priority that has been afforded to other issues. When we came in here, housing and health were the issues. Northern Ireland and Brexit quickly followed. Thankfully, Northern Ireland is getting back to itself with the regeneration of the assembly. We still have Brexit to deal with and we have finally come to taking climate change seriously. Disability and all the issues relating to it must be considered as being in the first division of priorities for the State. Dá bhrí sin, the Taoiseach and his Department need to provide leadership. A Minister of State with responsibility in this area should be attached to that Department. An Oireachtas committee designed to deal with the related interlocking and interdepartmental issues should be set up. If we do not take these or similar steps, we will waste energy and resources in trying to resolve the problem.
Let me explain the point. I have spent 40 years of my adult life working in the area of disability. I had some understanding of the matter before then. There is a growing crisis in this area.Yes, there has been further money put in but we are not keeping pace with the accelerated needs. People are living longer; we can diagnose and do lots of things. We are not winning the battle. We are making a few scores but we are not scoring more than the other side is. That is the key message I want to put across. There is poverty, isolation, lack of services and ultimately a lack of hope for people. That is not party political or a slag or anything like that. It is my assessment having been 40 years involved in this area and being the chief executive of a large umbrella body. Poverty rates for people with a disability have doubled since 2011. This is not my assessment. These are all footnoted and referenced. Only 22% of people with disabilities are at work compared with a figure of 61% for others. Disability services in the round, including mental health areas, are crumbling. There are mounting deficits in organisations of over €40 million. They are in the territory of trading recklessly. In respect of the 643,000 people, or 13.5% of the population, the National Disability Authority tells us that number will be 20% of the population in six years. A lot has to change in the way things are done and the amount of resources provided. It is between the ages of 18 and 65 that 85% of people acquire their disability. There are major issues. When I started my adult, working life I spent two years in a seminary. I have just spent four years in the Seanad coming to the other end of my life. I was only thinking about this the other day. The two places were in different ways formative for me.