Friday, 27 March 2020
An Bille um Bearta Éigeandála ar mhaithe le Leas an Phobail (Covid-19) 2020: An Dara Céim - Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I want to allocate some of my time to Senator Marshall. I thank the Minister for coming to the House. As this Bill passes through the House, I am mindful of the words of Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization that: "Speed trumps perfection." As such, I am sure none of us here will want to impede the passage of this Bill at this time.
First, I extend my sympathy to the families of those who have lost loved ones. To read some of the stories from people in the medical profession of people coming into hospital alone and dying alone is heartbreaking. In fairness to the Minister, he has put on the line for all of us what we can do to avoid that. I express my sincere gratitude to all who are working to keep this country going, including everybody from utility workers through to those packing shelves, collecting dustbins and working in front-line medical care. Without all of them, the country cannot continue.
Some things need to be put on the record today and hopefully the lessons we are learning will stand to the Oireachtas in the future and we will not make the same mistakes a second time. It is amazing how some matters that were deemed unconstitutional a mere few weeks ago are suddenly possible, such as rent freezes. It is amazing how these things can happen in a crisis but I am not here to cast stones. I compliment the Government and the Minister for Finance on getting the main banks to agree to the terms they have agreed to for the duration of the crisis. There are some questions still to be answered such as, for example, whether someone who is not making mortgage payments for three months and who must pay those payments at the end of the crisis should not have them added on to the end of the mortgage instead.
I congratulate the Garda Commissioner for the speed at which he acted to get members of the Garda out of Templemore and onto the streets. When we see what has gone on with people spitting in the faces of elderly people and shouting: "Covid-19" as they run away, we clearly need a high Garda presence.
I want to deal specifically with the Defence Forces, which I am sure comes as no surprise to the Minister. The chickens clearly have come home to roost.The neglect of the Defence Forces and the failure to have proper retention policies in place have caused the situation whereby we are now looking for veterans to come back.
I have always had some difficulty with the fact that the Secretary General of the Department of Defence and the Chief of Staff were not regarded as peer equals when it comes to the development of defence policy. When it comes to military advice, the Chief of Staff alone should be the person offering such advice.
The members of the Defence Forces have once again shown that, regardless of the crisis and personal danger, they are ready, willing and able to stand up to the plate. I thank the Chief of Staff and wish him and his charges luck as they go forward. I congratulate the crew of the LÉ Samuel Beckettin Dublin, the LÉ William Butler Yeatsin Galway and the LÉ Eithnein Cork for their speedy reaction in getting into place. I thank the Army for supporting the Naval Service in these three areas. In particular, I am mindful of my former colleagues in An Céad Cath at Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa, Galway, who are spread throughout the country.
I have tabled several amendments on how decisions will be made with respect to this legislation. I am mindful of the fact that the legislation has to get through today and I will not be pressing the amendments to a vote. However, I am putting several points on the record. I note references to how the Minister will make a certain decision or to the Minister's opinion. Surely, the Minister's opinions or decisions should be based on advice from the Chief of Staff. Most of my amendments relate to the advice required by the Chief of Staff. We cannot have politicians making decisions about operational issues within the Defence Forces.
The military service allowance was discussed yesterday in the Dáil. Currently, we have recruits, apprentices and cadets operating in front-line services in the military. I am calling on the Minister today to take them out of service and put them back into training, where they belong, unless we pay them the military service allowance. Student nurses have been paid and there has been no difficulty. Let us treat the Defence Forces with the same esteem accorded to the health services.
I have referred the pension abatement issue to the Minister and the Taoiseach. We cannot expect veterans to come back and abate their pensions at the same time. A pension is a property right - that has been established for Members of this House many times. We cannot continue to penalise members of the Defence Forces who put themselves forward to serve the country at a time of crisis.
I heard the Minister yesterday refer to re-enlistment for a six-month period up to three years. The period of re-enlistment can be for no longer than the crisis requires it. Veterans who return to the uniform at the request or need of the State need to be able to leave immediately the crisis is over and go back to their jobs. More important, they need their jobs protected. Yesterday, my colleague in the Dáil, Deputy Berry, protected the employment of those in the Reserve Defence Force with the amendment passed in the Dáil. I call on the Minister to make a statement today to the effect that those who return to the Permanent Defence Force and who then wish to go back to civilian employment will have that employment protected by the State.
The Reserve Defence Force is available to the State 24 hours per day, seven days per week. I would like to see the Reserve used in this crisis. Many highly-skilled people are ready, willing and waiting to come back. I am sure that decision is with the Chief of Staff and I am sure he will take it.