Friday, 19 February 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I join in the good wishes. Hopefully, Séamus will have a very long, healthy and happy retirement. He has served countless generations of Members of both Houses exceptionally well.
I want to take the issue of Ulster Bank in the round because a number of Senators have raised it and I will not reply to them individually. Arising from the announcement this morning on Ulster Bank and, indeed, the devastating impact it is going to have on our banking sector, not least the impact on its customers and employees, I made a request to the Minister for Finance for an urgent debate, not just on the impact of the closures of Ulster Bank, but on the future of banking for Irish citizens and the Irish society and economy as a whole. The Minister is in Brussels on Monday and, because of his restriction requirements, he will not be able to come to us on Friday, but he will give us a date the following week. I ask for the patience of Senators. I know it is an incredibly important situation and, notwithstanding that we are going to get a lot of inquiries from employees and customers over the next couple of weeks, the week after next is the earliest that I can ask the Minister to come to the House.
In response to Senator Burke, I will certainly ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, to come to talk to us and to have statements or a debate on technological universities. They are going to be a game-changer for the regions and they will take away the impetus of people, in particular young students, to go to our cities. It would be a very welcome debate.
In response to Senator Murphy, while I do not have any connection or association with anybody who cuts turf, I know how important it is to those families and to counties where people rely on it. For those people who are going to be using it for their own domestic use, it is very important, following the assurances that the Minister gave this week, that the information is very clear. We need to have a general debate on it in the round. The Minister is with us the week after next, although that is with regard to aviation, but I will ask for a debate to be scheduled around domestic turf cutting and the future of fuel and fuel usage in this country.
Senator Ward raised the very welcome announcement yesterday by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, of the initiative that we took to alleviate the normal conditions of rent supplement applications for women and their children who are fleeing dangerous situations in their home, although this shows how much it is still needed. To be honest, I think it is something that should be made permanent. It is not something that is just prevalent for those women and their children during the pandemic. I realise why we did is and I want to thank Safe Ireland for its representations and its pushing on this issue last year. It is something that exists in a woman's life when she is fleeing domestic violence at any time, not just during the pandemic, so we should probably look to make it more permanent.I do very much welcome it.
Senator Martin raised a point that is important during normal times but is absolutely important during these times. It applies not only to the information on vaccinations, which I hope will gather pace and become more clear. At a time when people are suffering or, at best, despairing or fed up, it also applies to the communication that comes from the Government, government agencies and the representative bodies that give us our information, our guidance and our tour. The quality of the information and the mediums through which it comes absolutely must be consistent and pitch perfect. One of the criticisms of the Government in recent months is probably that it has not been 100%. It certainly needs to be 100% from now on. I believe we have enjoyed social cohesion in this country over the past year because people have trust. We need to maintain that trust. The information we give to people must be clear, concise and in a medium they can accept and trust. This is very important.
Senator Cassells spoke about the Land Development Agency Bill 2021, which will be in Seanad Éireann in the coming weeks after it has gone through the Dáil. I agree with the Senator that there is a risk of trying to divide society. The national planning framework cannot be allowed to pitch rural Ireland against urban Ireland. We absolutely need to have both sectors thriving. I believe the Minister will come to the House on 22 March to talk about the national development plan. I will confirm this to the House once it has been confirmed to me.
Senator Warfield has asked for a debate on our night-time economy. I wish I felt young enough to be looking forward to a night-time economy in the future. The report is due in June. I will give a heads-up now to the Minister to set a date for us. As soon as the report is published, it will be a very worthwhile experiment for us to talk about what we look forward to when our economy reopens and the new development of having a night-time economy for those revellers who are able to go through the evening.
Senator Conway brought up a number of issues, one of which was the issue of the mother and baby homes, which continues to cause no end of hurt and despair to survivors and their children. The Minister will be in the House this afternoon for the last session. When we started talking about the report in January, I committed to continuing the debate until every Member of the House who wanted to have an opportunity to speak on the report had the opportunity. We have nine speakers this afternoon and there are six free slots. I encourage any Member who has not put his or her name down to do so for this afternoon. There are still many questions outstanding arising from the report. It is our responsibility and duty as a State to make sure we give the answers to the ladies and to their families that they so wish, and which are so badly needed, so we can start the reparations and that they are started now. There are a number of Bills before the House from different parties with regard to adoption and tracing. The Government's Bill will be published in the next few weeks. We need to come together collectively to give a resolution to the many generations of hurt and pain and not to compound it, as has happened over the past weeks, with hurt on hurt because of some of the difficulties with the commission's report.
Senator Conway also talked about Shannon Airport. I agree with the Senator. I commend the members from the counties of Tipperary and Clare, and Limerick city and county. Shannon Airport is obviously the cornerstone to the recovery of the economy in that area. It is wholly dependent on making sure we have the routes and the traffic in and out of that airport. The development body will be incredibly important to that. I acknowledge the Senator's request for that debate.
Senator Conway and others requested a debate on special education. The Minister was here some weeks ago but we have travelled a bit of a journey since then. We might request another debate going back, to make sure all of our children who have additional needs and requirements are looked after over the coming weeks.
Senator Sherlock seconded Senator Wall's amendment to the Order of Business. I am very happy to accept that amendment and to add the Bill to the Order Paper. I do not believe we should downplay illegal dumping. People may think it is a niche area but in rural Ireland in particular, and in some of our urban towns, it is an absolute scourge. We are all on Facebook and we are all part of social media groups where we can see that Irish people are driven insane by the ignorance, rudeness and callousness of some of our citizens who think nothing of dumping their own rubbish at a bin in the middle of the city, town or village where they live.It is the same for those who drive into our countryside to dump stuff in our hedges and along our roads. It is absolutely disgusting behaviour. The biggest issue facing us is that we need to tackle this through a war on litter. If we continue to tackle it in the way we have, we will still be talking about it in five or ten years' time. Our local authorities need to be given far greater resources and our fines and naming and shaming need to increase. If we do not up our game and hit people where it hurts, we will still be talking about this issue in the future. The CCTV element of the Senator's Bill will help highlight who is doing this, allowing us to make further progress, so I am happy to accept the amendment. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media is due to come before us in a number of weeks but she is due to talk to us about tourism so I am not sure we can discuss the Bill. I will request a debate on that particular topic for the Senator. That is no problem.
Senator Lombard talked about beef prices. The mantra for our farmers has always been that anybody producing a good product should be given a good price for it yet we find ourselves continuously talking about beef, milk and lamb. The legislation on an ombudsman will be very welcome. I will find out when it is due before the House. If it is not relatively soon, I will ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the House for a debate about his plans for the sector.
Senator Ardagh talked about Ulster Bank but also about the drugs payment scheme and the small number of women who are affected by morning sickness for lengthy periods of their pregnancy. It is a false economy not to include this medication in the drugs payment scheme because those women who cannot get the drugs end up in hospital where they probably cost the State a greater amount of money than they would have if they had the drugs. I am happy to raise the matter with the Minister.
Senator Craughwell brought to the attention of the House a matter that is very topical this week. Apart from welcoming Senator Byrne's Bill and hoping it gets full support in this House and in the other House, the only thing I can say is that I am pleased that the family's wish for the commemoration not to go ahead in their name this week has been fulfilled. I am very glad that sense has prevailed with regard to this senseless operation and that the so-called commemoration has been cancelled.
Senator Currie talked about something which put a smile on the face of every mammy and daddy in the country yesterday, the Minister for Education's announcement that schools were to reopen on 1 March. They are not just reopening because our children need their educators, who have, to be fair to them, done a super job over recent weeks where they have had the requisite technology and broadband, but because they need their friends. They need a social life, to leave their houses every single day, to get the exercise of walking to school, to have chats and all of the other things which we take for granted. I, for one, have four children at home and very much look forward to everybody getting back to school in the coming weeks.
I thank Senator Fitzpatrick for the very poignant and beautiful poem she read. There was silence in the House as we all listened to every single word. The poem commemorated the day that is in it tomorrow and paid respect to those people who lost their lives on all of our behalf.
Senator Black raised an intolerable situation which, on the face of it, appears to be lunacy. I do not have a response for her but I will contact the Minister for Foreign Affairs today to see if I can get her a written response this afternoon as to what the plans are because to continue doing the same thing over and over again seems to be the definition of madness. More importantly, what needs to be addressed is the cause and root of the need faced by our aid agencies to keep providing homes and shelter for those people who are continuously displaced. I will see what I can find out for the Senator today. We should have a debate on Palestine in the coming weeks if that can be arranged with the Minister.
Senator Gavan spoke about Iconic Newspapers and about Ulster Bank. The former issue has been raised a number of times in recent weeks by different Members, each of whom represent counties that have local newspapers owned by Iconic Newspapers. It is really sad. We all know the reasons. I know the Senator wanted to talk about collective bargaining and so on and that is something we can certainly have a debate on. That is no problem. We all know, however, that the supports that have been made available to our local newspapers, such as the employment wage subsidy scheme, the earlier temporary wage subsidy scheme and the rates holiday, are not enough because the advertising revenue that is these newspapers' bread and butter has been devastated.The State needs to step up if we value the quality of production in local towns and villages and the type of news they report, which is completely different to the type of news national newspapers report. If we value them, we need to support them. That is something we should all share and seek to debate, as I have done already. When I have a date, I will come back to the House with it.
Senator O'Reilly referred to the banking sector and the need for a debate. I will let her know as soon as I have a date. More importantly, she referred at the end of her contribution to COVAX. While we are all caught up in when our parents are going to get their vaccine and when we will move through the age groups from the over-80s to the over-70s and eventually move downwards, and that is hugely important for all of us, but we must also be mindful of the fact that there are countries that will not be able to afford to give a vaccine to any age group. It is incumbent upon on all of us to make sure that we realise our responsibility to the rest of the people who live on the planet and not just in our own country. The contribution of Dr. Michael Ryan yesterday afternoon was spectacular. We have all grown in our admiration for him over the past year. I did not even know the man existed before the pandemic. He is one of the most compassionate, educated and smart people I have ever come across. His contribution yesterday was particularly poignant. We all have a responsibility to every human on the planet and not just in our country. That is something that needs to be highlighted.
Senator Mullen was not quite berated, but somebody was perturbed when he said last week that some students might down tools. He now has the proof that a mammy is telling him that she has a fear that some of her kids might. The only thing I can say to all of our junior certificate students is that the junior certificate may have been cancelled in the format we traditionally know but all of them are going to have to do exams in their schools or relevant environments in order to get A, B, C or D grades on their papers. They will get the results in September. Anybody who downs tools is going to get a rude awakening when he or she gets a piece of paper back in September. I can only encourage all of our children to continue to do the hard work they have been doing in recent months. Some of the language in the delivery of the message could have been more fine-tuned. We need to support schools in doing those exams in the coming months.
We started today with Senator Chambers referring to the devastating news about Ulster Bank. We do need to know the future plans we have not just for the banking sector but for the economy. I genuinely look forward to us all being vaccinated and coming out the other end and enjoying what will be a new normal life, but there is the trepidation of knowing that a lot of people will be affected by the economy, and that certain sectors might not return to the extent we enjoyed prior to March 2020 and the impact that will have on them. We need to start planning to help those people to retrain and reskill and to provide a new life, not just socially in their communities but also in their work environment. That is a debate I think we should have sooner rather than later.