Tuesday, 25 February 2014
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 46, motion No. 7, on the Supplementary Order Paper, a Private Members' motion, which is in substitution for No. 46, motion No. 7 on today's Order Paper, to be taken at 3.45 p.m. and conclude not later than 5.45 p.m.
I have endeavoured to get the Minister for transport to come into the House. We are all aware of the specific issue with the Aer Lingus pension scheme which is ongoing. All of us hope industrial action can be averted in this instance, but the Minister's response to the chairman of the Retired Aviation Staff Association, Mr. Arthur McSweeney, who represents thousands of retired workers in Aer Lingus, the Dublin Airport Authority and what was SR Technics was not helpful. The RASA wrote to the Minister on 11 January seeking a meeting with him to put forward its case and the Minister's private secretary wrote back on 20 February.
The letter stated:
No wonder we are in this difficulty in regard to Aer Lingus and the pending industrial action when the Minister will not even meet the stakeholders involved. Will the Leader request that the Minister meet the Retired Aviation Staff Association?
I refer to your letter dated 11thJanuary 2014 regarding your request for a meeting. [There was no apology for the almost eight-week delay in responding.]
Due to a heavy schedule of existing commitments, the Minister is not in a position to facilitate a meeting.
Before the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, puts his two big feet in it again in regard to his new tax, universal health insurance, which will cost every adult in this State €1,600 per year, can we have a proper debate in the House? I know a paper has gone from the Minister to his Cabinet colleagues and I understand from media reports, whether true or not, that it has not met with a favourable response from many of them and that it lacks the detail required. I remind Members that people are already paying for health insurance and for access to the health system through their normal taxes. I cannot understand how the Minister can say adults should pay €1,600 extra per year for what is, effectively, compulsory health insurance. When he is ready, the Minister needs to come forward with a plan to be discussed in the House. Will the Leader request that of him?
I raise a specific and important matter in regard to the drug payment scheme and I ask that the Leader, through his good offices, support my request in this regard. I received a letter from a 50-year-old woman who has been suffering from multiple sclerosis for the past eight years. She said that a year and a half ago she was put on a trial drug called Fampyra by her consultant, which aids walking. She said she has found this drug very beneficial and that it helps her to lift her foot and prevent her from falling. She said she and her husband recently learned the shocking news that the HSE will not fund this drug from July 2014 and, to add insult to injury, it will not be available under the drug payment scheme but that it will be available privately at an approximate cost of €280 per month. As she has had to give up nursing and as her husband-----
-----is her carer, she asks how can they be expected to fund this from their own restricted means. She said she finds it very stressful to deal with this on top of having a debilitating illness that has devastated their lives. This is the reality of what is happening in our health service.
I will conclude. This is the reality of what is happening in our health service. This 50-year-old woman has multiple sclerosis and cannot afford a drug which improves her quality of life and standard of living. All I ask is that the Leader use his good offices to impress on the Minister the importance of including this drug, Fampyra, in the drug payment scheme from July 2014.
Last week, as Deputy Leader, I dealt with a number of issues around the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, the response of the Government to the GSOC controversy and, on Thursday, the dossier that was provided by Sergeant Maurice McCabe. I said at that point that we should have a debate on policing generally and I would like to renew the call for such a debate. I know they have not yet been confirmed but I would like to welcome the reports today from Cabinet that a barrister-----
-----will be appointed to conduct a scoping inquiry into the dossier and the allegations of the whistleblower. Let us not forget that a similar scoping inquiry by Shane Murphy SC led to the setting up of the Morris tribunal. It is entirely appropriate that that sort of independent review is carried out now without ruling out the possibility of a commission of investigation under 2004 Act in the future if the claims made, which are very serious, are warranted to be serious and substantiated enough to be investigated. These go back many years.
I recommend that colleagues who did not see last night's "Prime Time" programme on this issue watch it, because it really clarified a number of issues, and Maurice McCabe was very impressive in providing the transcript, which the "Prime Time" team showed. Serious allegations have been made and I am really glad to hear reports from Cabinet that an independent review will be conducted as a sort of scoping inquiry without ruling out a fuller commission of investigation in the future, as we saw with the Morris tribunal.
In addition, I welcome the result of the Constitutional Convention at the weekend. It was a real pleasure and privilege to be there for the final weekend session of the Constitutional Convention. There was a good attendance of all citizens and political representatives and it was great to see 85% of the convention delegates voting in favour of strengthened protection for economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution. A recommendation will go to the Government regarding a referendum on that issue and I very much hope it will be supported by the Government. I again ask the Leader, who I acknowledge already has agreed to do this, for a debate on the final report of the Constitutional Convention as soon as it is published.
I am happy to take up where Senator Bacik left off by acknowledging with her and, I am sure, other Members of the House, the extraordinary work of the Constitutional Convention. I particularly welcome its decision to recommend to the Government, by 85% as the Senator noted, the strengthening of the protection of economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution. My experience of being there this weekend is that we are in a new era called the human rights era. There was very little effort to work towards that recommendation. People, both citizens and politicians and regardless of party or political affiliation, understood that all basic human rights are to be protected. One point I learned in particular and which was highly persuasive in respect of presentations was that were the people to vote to incorporate a strengthening of these rights into the Constitution, that largely would be a guidance for lawmakers. It would be a guidance for them, again regardless of from what political ideology one comes, to ensure greater protection for these basic rights and I really welcome that.
The other point I wish to make is how much I admire the tenacity with complexity and the openness of mind, especially of the citizens, as well as their participation in those debates. These characteristics of tenacity and openness of mind are great characteristics for politicians to emulate and as Senator Bacik mentioned, I wish to confirm with the Leader that this report from the Constitutional Convention will be debated in the Seanad.
Second, I refer to a question I will have for the Leader. I echo the dismay expressed by allies, institutions and governments all around the globe and state categorically that I regard the long-threatened anti-same-sex legislation signed into law yesterday in Uganda as institutionalising hatred and sabotaging efforts of human rights and health work. For example, in the case of life imprisonment if one marries someone of the same gender, were I in Uganda I would be heading to prison. Similarly, in respect of seven years' imprisonment for directors of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, advocacy groups, I note that were one a member of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, LGBT Noise or even of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, or the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, one would be heading to prison for seven years in Uganda. Consequently, I ask the Leader to convey to the Tánaiste the desirability of amplifying Ireland's voice at the Human Rights Council in this regard and of formulating a response to extreme legislation of this sort at international level. As the courage to speak of sexual and gender diversity increases in hostile societies, so too does the incidence of extreme prohibitive law-making, as seen in Russia, Nigeria and now Uganda.
I agree with what my colleague, Senator Bacik, had to say about the possibility of a scoping inquiry being a good idea. I certainly do not believe one should rush into commissions of inquiry until there has been a chance to get greater clarity than has been achieved to date regarding what precisely has been going on. Everyone agrees the reports from whistleblowers and indeed about whistleblowing within the Garda Síochána are extremely concerning.
I wish to raise a parallel issue and welcome Senator Bacik's call for a debate on policing and the work of An Garda Síochána in this regard. Were concerns expressed within the Garda Síochána about the closure of rural Garda stations and the impact that might have on rural crime? Many people are extremely concerned about the capacity of An Garda Síochána to provide people with the security in their lives to which they are entitled, particularly in rural areas. I wish to know whether there was much discussion at local level about the impact of closing Garda stations and whether it was thought by individual gardaí that it would have an impact on their ability to prevent and investigate crime.
I also defend Senator Darragh O'Brien for raising concerns about access to drugs and health services. I was in contact with a family recently about a person who had three times been deemed to require important surgery and had been brought in a bus from County Donegal to a Dublin hospital only to be sent back each time because the surgery could not be organised for that day. That is an appalling way to treat people. I am also very concerned, as one of the 2 million who hold private health insurance, about what it is proposed to do in the future. Are we looking at a situation where 30% of the population will have to subvent health insurance for the other 70%? I believe most people would be happy to do this provided they were guaranteed a quality health service, but it will be another oppressive tax, with no return in necessary health services if matters do not change radically.
I ask that we have the debate which I know some colleagues in the Government parties have requested on sustainable energy. I ask that we have a debate on the need to reassess our aspirations for renewable energy projects. We had a building boom because we rushed headlong into poorly thought out tax reliefs and bad planning policy. Is it possible that the massive wind farms planned for the midlands will see the same process repeated? We have not seen financial viability plans for the scheme to export wind power to the United Kingdom. At the start of February in Spain all subsidised electricity prices were cut in the case of schemes built before 2004. Investors in Spanish wind energy projects were lured into the industry by the Government's promise that it would maintain generous feed-in tariffs for 20 years and now the United Kingdom and Germany are planning to engage in the same process.
I ask the Leader if we can have this debate because people are wondering whether we are rushing into a massive plan to build wind farms with no certainty in terms of there being a market for the power generated and no clear return on investment. Will we have thousands of ghost wind farms in ten years to match the ghost housing estates?
Will farmers be saddled with ugly wind turbines that they were lured into investing in only to find there is a get-out clause in the contract for the wind turbine developers, as well as tax implications for farmer in changing the use of their land?
I raise the issue of rural post offices and refer to the motion to be taken in the other House today and tomorrow. First and foremost, this is political opportunism, although perhaps we might find a better word to describe it. Essentially, it is an attack on rural Ireland, but I direct the blame at one source, namely, the board of directors of An Post. If it were the board of directors of any other company, it would have got the bullet, so to speak, years ago because if one looks at a graph of the service provided by An Post, it is only in one direction and the directors have done nothing to stop it. They never dealt with anything until it became a problem. They never sought efficiencies and have not done their jobs. They have not chased new business, as any board of directors and any body else would do. Regarding applications for social welfare payments, etc., I have seen a copy of a letter sent by a social welfare office to an applicant requesting their bank details. People are being corralled in order to receive their payments, but the banks do not want this. We must, therefore, be very careful in this regard. In the light of the debate that will take place in the other House tonight and tomorrow, I ask colleagues to consider the ramifications of what could happen in the future. In my county alone - I have spoken to many postmasters - anything up to 50 rural post offices could close. The board of An Post should either resign or the Minister should give the directors their marching orders.
I refer to the ongoing whistleblowers saga and the lack of confidence in the politburo of the Garda and the Minister for Justice and Equality.
I call for a debate on this issue as a matter of urgency. I will not propose an amendment to the Order of Business today, but I ask the Leader to set aside two or three hours in the next week or ten days for a debate on the issue.
We are hearing all sorts of stories. We had the bizarre set-up with penalty points. We had the alleged bugging of GSOC and still do not know if it was bugged. There is a lack of trust in the Garda Commissioner and the top echelons of the Garda Síochána, which is regrettable and not good for public confidence. Even more worrying is the suggestion today by the Taoiseach and the Cabinet that a senior counsel be appointed to examine issues that have arisen. This is ludicrous. This is a slow burner and has been for two years. Somebody needs to grasp the nettle. If only 20% of what was said on last night's "Prime Time" programme by the serving sergeant, one of the whistleblowers, is true, it raises serious questions about the situation vis-à-vis the Commissioner. If it is true, it is bizarre that the two principal complainants were not asked to give evidence to Assistant Commissioner John O'Mahony in his investigation. There are many issues which are eroding the confidence of the Garda and doing it huge damage. Senator Rónán Mullen spoke about the closure of Garda stations, an issue we have raised in the House on several occasions, but we face this debacle of a lack of trust in the Garda and the issue of the whistleblowers. On the one hand, whistleblowers are being enticed and supported by legislation, while, on the other, they are not wanted by the Government. It is basically stating it wants to have a whistleblower system in place, but it will not give whistleblowers any credence, chance or credibility. That is why I ask the Leader to arrange an urgent debate in this House on the issue. This House is owed a full debate on this debacle, irrespective of whether there is the sideshow of a senior counsel investigating papers which have been out for so long that they must be getting mouldy in being passed from one hand to the other. This is one of the most serious issues the State has faced in the past 30 years and we need to address it, rather than kick the can down the road.
Will the Leader ask the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to come back to the House to continue the debate on A Vision for Change and mental health services, in particular adolescent and youth mental health services? I have raised this issue continually since becoming a Member. In my first speech in the House almost three years ago I raised the question of children being placed in adult psychiatric units. It is totally unacceptable that 68 children were admitted to adult psychiatric units last year. While I recognise much work has been done and commend the Minister of State for what she has done, there is huge scope in this regard. Can we concentrate on the 16 to 18 year old age group, in particular? Some 2,500 children were waiting for an appointment with the adolescent mental health service. In my region, the north east, staffing levels in child and adolescent mental health services were only 61% compliant. There is a huge amount of work to be done. I refer, in particular, to the adolescent mental health service for children in the 16 to 18 year old group. This group is being left out. Last week a constituent contacted me about a 16 year old boy whom the paediatric service had refused to see because he was over 16 years of age, while the child and adolescent mental health service had stated it could not help because he was over 16 years and had an intellectual disability. The GP said this meant he would have to be sedated.
My question is whether we must sedate someone between 16 and 18 years of age until the person is old enough to have access to adult mental health services. I find this totally unacceptable and I call on the Leader to have an urgent debate on it.
In view of the debate on post offices in the Dáil this week, I refer to the regret of the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, that the interest rate on savings paid by post offices was reduced because of pressure from the banks suggesting that post offices were engaged in unfair competition. That should be examined if we are trying to save post offices, because the banks were bailed out by the taxpayer and they were the ones engaging in unfair competition.
Of 725 motorists tested early on Sunday morning in Killarney, Newcastle West, Thurles and Waterford, only two were found to be over the alcohol limit. This is a compliment to the Garda Síochána and to the motorists for behaving so responsibly. We all face the problem of the 190 people killed on Irish roads last year and the need to reduce this number.
I congratulate UCC on winning the Sigerson Cup, which was established by one of the predecessors of the Cathaoirleach, Dr. George Sigerson, who was the Chairman of the First Seanad of the Irish Free State on 11 and 12 December 1922 before the election of Lord Glenavy. I pass on my best wishes to the intervarsity competition that is taking place nearby this week, the Collingwood Cup.
I welcome the decision by the Cabinet to appoint a barrister to carry out a scoping exercise on the many allegations in the public domain against members of the Garda Síochána. It is essential that this be done as a matter of urgency. I support and agree with much of what was said by Senator Denis O'Donovan. We must have a discussion on the administration of justice in because it is essential that confidence is restored in the Garda Síochána as a matter of urgency. It is essential that there is confidence in the management of the Garda Síochána and that whistleblowers are protected. The public must have confidence that if the Garda Síochána does wrong, a whistleblower has recourse to an avenue to bring it to the attention of the powers that be so that the issue can be addressed as a matter of urgency.
I support Senator Zappone in condemning the appalling legislation enacted in Uganda yesterday. I support the call for the Tánaiste to raise the issue at the UN Human Rights Council.
There has been scaremongering in the media recently in regard to driving licences. Driving licences are now administered by the Road Safety Authority, RSA. Applications that are in order are processed in 12 days or fewer. In the case of applications that are not in order, where the applicant must be contacted, it will take longer. The RSA is on course for a ten-day turnaround by the end of February and a five- to eight-day turnaround by the end of March. I appeal to public representatives not to scare people or transmit misinformation. They should check the facts before they go on national radio and television.
I join Senator Bacik and Senator Zappone in commending the work of the Constitutional Convention and calling for a debate in the House on the final report, which will be furnished to the Taoiseach by the chairman, Mr. Tom Arnold. If we have a debate, the Taoiseach should come to the Chamber. It would be a worthwhile debate with the Taoiseach. Many of the citizen delegates at the convention felt a second Constitutional Convention could and should be put in place to deal with a range of outstanding issues that the convention was unable to deal with.
I refer to the Garda whistleblowers and the issues that will not be resolved unless there is a full, independent inquiry.
The Taoiseach has had in his possession for almost a week a dossier from the Garda whistleblower, Sergeant Maurice McCabe. By his admission, the Taoiseach has indicated this raises very serious policing and justice issues. It has also been stated that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, was aware of this dossier and these allegations and cases for over two years but failed to act. I must go against the grain with respect to the comments made by the Government Senators that the appointment of a barrister to examine these claims is the appropriate way to do this. I do not believe so. This is the Government circling the wagons, protecting its Minister first and foremost rather than the public good or confidence in the Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality. The only credible way to proceed is a full independent inquiry allowed for under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.
Whatever about the issue of full or partial independent inquiries, the Garda whistleblowers were wronged in the first instance by the Minister for Justice and Equality when he stated in the Dáil that they were not co-operating with inquiries; that was not the case. They were also wronged by the Garda Commissioner when he used the word "disgusting" with regard to their activities and coming before Oireachtas committees. That is despite the fact we now know they were invited before Oireachtas committees by the Department of Justice and Equality. The whistleblowers were wronged by the Garda Commissioner because of that and other comments, and by the Minister for Justice and Equality, so both should apologise. If the public is to have continued faith in the justice system and An Garda Síochána, there must be a full independent inquiry and no half-measures will suffice.
I support what is a very reasonable request from Senator Darragh O'Brien to impress upon the Minister the need for drugs to treat people suffering from multiple sclerosis. If somebody gets cancer or has a heart condition, we all sit up and take notice but in most cases people can be cured or get better. There is no cure for this neurological disease and this is a debilitating condition from which people will not recover. The drugs in question are a lifeline to a semblance of normal life. It is incumbent on the State to provide such drugs. The Senator mentioned a figure of €280 and ultimately, that could keep a person out of hospital and long-term care. It would be a cheap option for the State if we are honest.
I will go a step further and ask the Leader to request the Minister to come before the House. We can have a debate on long-term illness cards and eligibility, and he can have a chance to give a good reason for this drug being unacceptable in the long-term illness scheme. If we do not use trial drugs, there will be no progress in medical science. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come before us so we can debate the issue?
Last Friday night Mr. Aogán Ó Fearghail became the 38th Uachtaráin-Tofa of Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, and this time next year he will take over as the 38th president of the GAA. In doing so, he will become the first Cavan man to hold this position in the 130-year history of the GAA. He will be only the seventh Ulster man to hold the position and one of only four people in the 130 years to be elected on the first count, getting over 170 No. 1 votes.
From next year a Cavan man will hold aloft the Sam Maguire Cup for at least three years in a row. We hope that for one of those years at least, he will present the cup to the Cavan senior football team, which is doing very well.
On Sunday evening, along with Oireachtas colleagues, Deputies Joe O'Reilly and Brendan Smith, I attended a reception at GAA headquarters in Cavan at Kingspan Breffni Park to welcome the president-elect.
During his address he said the GAA was a community of volunteers and that community was at the heart of everything we did. He went on to refer to the four Fs - fixtures, finance, facilities and family - which will become the cornerstone of his presidency when he takes over this time next year. As a Cavan man and on behalf of Senator Kathryn Reilly, a very proud Cavan woman, I congratulate Aogán and his family and wish him well in his presidency in the year ahead.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and the Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Michael Ring, confirmed recently that Hugo McNeill, an ex-Ireland rugby international, had agreed to chair the working group established in conjunction with their Northern colleagues, Minister Arlene Foster and Carál Ní Chuilín. The Rugby World Cup working group will comprise representatives from North and South, Departments, agencies and other key bodies. It will examine some key issues to assist the two Governments in their decision on whether to set out a roadmap for a potential bid and will report later in the summer. I wish those involved well in their deliberations. What a boost it would be for Irish rugby and all-Ireland tourism interests if we were to decide to bid, and be successful, to hold the Rugby World Cup on the island of Ireland in the near future.
I wish to call, too, for an urgent debate with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, on the future of post offices, particularly in rural areas. Many post offices are in fear of being closed down. I am deeply concerned and would like to hear the Minister's future proposals for the post office network.
I would like the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, to come to the House for a broad-ranging debate on mortgage and debt solutions. Last night I hosted a public meeting in Oranmore. There was a public element, as well as private one-to-one consultations with personal insolvency practitioners. Mr. David Hall, whom we all know, was present and approximately 90 people attended. It takes a lot of courage for people in debt and under severe stress to come out. They had mortgage, personal and business debtts and more than 70 had one-to-one meetings. The demand was so great that the exercise must be repeated. What struck me most was that people were suffering in silence. Some disclosures were made which showed that the lives of some were at risk. The more we talk about the issue and come up with solutions, the better. It is clear that the answer lies in negotiation, write-downs and the intervention of trusted third parties acting as intermediaries between those who are in severe debt and the banks. The banks are in a state of paralysis, except for AIB which is waking up to reality. The sooner they sort out their own problems and get on and address the issue the sooner we will return to normality. I cannot stress enough the seriousness of the issue. I have read in the newspapers how the position is improving, but I exposed the myth being created. That is not true. The level of debt is a serious issue. People are under severe stress and I fear for their lives. I have said my piece. I urge the Leader to bring the Minister for Finance to the House. There is a myriad of problems which are too broad for me to raise on the Order of Business. Suffice it to say a debate is needed.
I call on the Leader to contact the Minister responsible - perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd - for Waterways Ireland.
I am not sure if many people remember the Naomh Éanna, but there was a wonderful programme about it on Radio 1 which featured a speech by the late Seán Lemass. It was a proud moment when this then state-of-the-art boat was built in a Dublin dockyard and launched. It served the Aran Islands for many years, is an iconic vessel, is one of the few remaining fully riveted vessels in the world and has all of its original machinery. It is because of an ownership dispute that it has been left idle since 1986 in Grand Canal Dock and is now in a somewhat distressed state. A group that has already had success in restoring marine vessels wants a six-month moratorium on its sale. Apparently, Waterways Ireland is determined to sell it for scrap and as we speak, the boat is being stripped. I heard today that the brass portholes are being removed for scrap. This is appalling. All we are asking for is a six-month delay so that the interested group can put a proper plan together. The boat is being dismantled currently, but every scrap of it should be kept so that it can be reassembled. It would be a tourist attraction and would display Irish craftsmanship of which we can be proud. Will the Leader get in touch with the relevant Minister on this issue?
On another issue, I am not sure whether anybody has mentioned Sharon Ní Bheoláin today. What is going on is horrendous. I realise I am, to a certain extent, taking my life in my hands saying this, because newspapers are so utterly vengeful and poisonous and if one dares to criticise them, they will go after one. I am not afraid, but I am involved in legal proceedings - four legal cases - and must be a little careful. The editor of the most offensive newspaper apologised, but there was much talk about the women in the office being more or less responsible. The blame was shifted onto them. I heard a lot about -----
I have been called a misogynist in this House, but I would like to know where people are when there is real misogyny going on. If the apology made was sincere, the images would have been taken down off the Internet straight away. The fact they were not tells us how hollow the apology was.
I support Senator O'Brien's call for more Government interaction to deal with the pending Aer Lingus situation. Anyone who subscribes to a pension would feel that after so many years' work, their pension entitlement should be there for them. We need to distinguish between average pensions people contribute towards all their working lives and the astronomical gold-plated pensions of senior public servants we have seen over the years. People who work hard and contribute towards an ordinary, decent pension should not at this stage of their lives have concerns that their pension provisions will be completely dismantled.
I understand that negotiations at the DAA with Aer Lingus are fraught. These negotiations also cover Shannon Airport and former workers there. I would like to see a reinvigorated effort on the part of all parties to come up with a fair and equitable solution to the issue, including for people with deferred pensions who were encouraged to take early retirement and to go and pursue other careers in the knowledge their pension was deferred until they were 65. I have a major issue with people who have deferred pensions being made scapegoats, because they no longer have union or company representation. There is an issue in that regard.
I beg the Chair's indulgence to make one further comment. It has come to my attention today that there is an issue with regard to the staff of county enterprise boards transferring to local enterprise offices of county councils. People who have been acting in positions for a number of years are finding they are being downgraded several steps in the promotional chain.
It is only fair and reasonable that the small number of staff in county enterprise boards who are transferring to local authorities should keep the entitlements they have on the day of transfer. Any self-respecting Department would see the fairness and merit in that proposal. Will the Leader communicate to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, as well as the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government-----
I congratulate Senator Wilson on the appointment of a Cavan man, Mr. Aogán Ó Fearghail, to the presidency of the GAA. When I spoke to the Thirty-two Counties president last year in Croke Park, I pointed out my first visit to Croke Park was to watch Cavan versus Cork in an all-Ireland semi-final. I offered a prize to the first person who could tell me what year it was. Cavan won, by the way.
There have been calls to ensure we maintain rural post offices. While we have not planned a debate on them, it will be a matter on the Adjournment later today. We should have a debate on how to keep our town’s main streets alive. It is not just An Post services that are threatened but other service providers. Some towns are doing very well but others are not. It just means exercising our minds.
In Britain, it has become law that one can park on double yellow lines for 15 minutes in towns in a bid to put life back into them. It was noted that when one wants to drop into a local shop for a newspaper or a small item, one could not park outside it because of a double yellow line. This is one of many ideas with which we might be able to come up. It would be worthwhile having such a debate on this area as retail in towns across Ireland is threatened. The Seanad could do something about it here without any cost to the State.
As schools have just reopened following the mid-term break, I wanted to raise an issue relating to it. I was interested to see UK MPs debating whether there should be a relaxation of the rules on half-term holidays. This was triggered by an e-petition, signed by 200,000 people, condemning the hugely inflated prices charged by holiday companies during the break.
Many hardworking parents here also want to get away during half-term. It seems, however, travel companies increase prices from 40% to 300% for holidays during the break. Accordingly, a rising number of parents are taking their children out of school during non-holiday times which will affect their children’s education. In some countries, there is an idea of staggering holidays while regional states in other countries take holidays at different times to counteract this problem. It would be worthwhile implementing such a system here as many are caught in a parent trap with this matter. This was an issue I wanted to raise although I would not necessarily want a debate on it.
Last week, I called for an urgent debate on what was then the crisis on the streets and cities of the Ukraine. Obviously, events have moved on but, in a sense, they have become much more serious with threatening language from the Russian side. Will the Leader arrange, as soon as he can, that we hear from the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on this matter and to ascertain the official Irish and EU position?
I have listened to some comments on post offices and from Senator Quinn on the question of local business. In that context I want to highlight a media report I read at the weekend on the Government's proposal to fast-track the development of up to 70,000 houses in the Dublin region. All the evidence appears to suggest there is a shortage of housing supply in certain Dublin areas and that needs to be addressed. However, let this House not ignore the fact that there are tens of thousands of vacant units of accommodation in towns, townlands and villages all over the non-Dublin part of this country. The non-Dublin part of this country is not an irrelevant place. Previous Governments tried unsuccessfully, by way of spatial strategies and decentralisation of all descriptions, to regenerate rural and provincial Ireland and it has not worked. We have probably just one last opportunity to reflect on the possibility of rebuilding and regenerating our rural villages, towns and communities. There is social and economic capital in doing so. Although it is a long-playing record not just from me but from every other Member of the Oireachtas, we should have another debate on spatial strategy, rural development and the regeneration of rural communities. That will help, not hinder, Dublin and the Dublin hinterland.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation recently had a very interesting presentation from Mr. Sean O'Sullivan, whom the Cathaoirleach probably knows from "Dragons' Den". He presented to us the report of the entrepreneurship forum that the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, asked him to establish and lead. It is a valuable document that we should debate in this House. There is a lot in it. It would be an opportunity to examine the whole area again with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, or the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock. It encompasses education as well. One of its primary recommendations is that we have a focus on entrepreneurship across our education system from primary right through to third level. The whole area is not being addressed adequately at third level. We expect business schools in our universities or our IT sector to teach business, whereas it should be taught right across all sectors, including engineering, the sciences and computer science. That way we can encourage people to start their own businesses. I use the word "entrepreneurs" and we all use it a lot, but we should probably use a plainer expression such as "people who start a business". This very important document also focuses on research. So much money is spent on research in our universities and IT sectors, yet we are not realising the value of that by bringing it to commercial fruition. Senator Quinn was also at the committee meeting and I am sure he would agree that we could and should discuss this report with the Minister in this House.
I was there for Operation Bush4mation in co-operation with "Operation Transformation", which has been on television for the last six weeks, and which has been drawing tremendous attention to the fitness and well-being of people here in Ireland. I was impressed with Bush Post Primary School and the facilities available for the local community. Not only does the school have a magnificent athletics track and gymnasium, but it is well floodlit and it has allowed the secondary school to be used by the general community in the Cooley Peninsula. While I was there I began to think about how the Irish Sports Council and the National Sports Campus Development Authority being merged into Sport Ireland. The heads of the relevant Bill have been produced. Having witnessed how the school has opened its facilities to the community in the Cooley Peninsula, I think of all the facilities in schools throughout Ireland that could be made available for the general community in those areas but, unfortunately, are not due to insurance or management issues.
This might be the ideal time to invite the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister of State with responsibility for sport to the House, individually or together, to discuss how the proposed new Sport Ireland body can help schools throughout the country manage the utilisation of these facilities. Schools are usually only open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and are free after that. We should have a debate on how to utilise and manage these facilities for the communities throughout Ireland.
Senator Darragh O'Brien spoke about whom the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, should and should not meet. That is a matter for the Minister. He is quite capable of deciding with whom and when he should meet. With regard to the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, and universal health insurance, a matter that was raised by other Senators, I understand it will be the subject of a White Paper and we will have a comprehensive discussion on it at the appropriate time. Again, I advise the Senator not to believe everything he reads in the newspapers.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on policing. When the reports are completed it would probably be an appropriate time for a debate, but we could possibly have a debate on it before then. This matter was also raised by Senators O'Donovan and Mullins. The question of confidence in the Garda and GSOC is a matter of paramount importance that must be addressed, and the Government has every intention of addressing it in the best possible way. There will a scoping exercise and if an inquiry is necessary, I am sure that will happen.
Senator Bacik, as well as Senator Zappone and others, also referred to the completion of the Constitutional Convention. Mr. Tom Arnold appeared before the House previously and agreed to return to debate the full report when it is complete. We will have that debate when the report is published.
Senator Zappone spoke about the protection of basic human rights in the Constitutional Convention and mentioned that the public consultation committee will also deal with the issue of human rights. I note her point about Uganda, a point also raised by Senator Mullins. I share her concerns regarding the extreme legislation, which is reprehensible in my view, introduced in Uganda. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
I note Senator Mullen's comments on the health service and universal health insurance, which I have addressed. In respect of wind energy, time was allocated for public consultation on that matter. I am sure we can have a debate when that period is complete. I have already asked the Minister on a number of occasions to come to the House to discuss this matter.
Senator Sheahan and others raised the issue of rural post offices and the need for post offices to attract new business and so forth. Last week there was a request that we would deal with the 2013 report of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications on promoting a sustainable service for the post office network. The report will be discussed in the other House tomorrow. I remind the House that we had a debate on that report on 4 July last year, so we are well ahead of the posse. We dealt with the report at that point.
If Senator Norris allows me to complete my comments, I might answer his query.
This is in contrast to the trends during the period between 2006 and 2010 when 197 post offices were closed. Members on the other side of the House who raised the matter should consider their record in that regard.
There are dramatic changes occurring in the postal service and revenue in An Post has fallen as mail volumes have dropped. In contrast, the business being done across post office counters has increased in recent years. An Post and the postmasters have worked closely together to win new business for the network. Banking services, bill payments and foreign exchange are just a few of the post office counter services that are growing. I assure the House that if we need a further debate on the issue then we will arrange one. This House debated the report from the Oireachtas joint committee on 4 July last year.
Senator Moran called for a debate on mental health services, particularly services for 16 to 18 year-olds. We have already had four debates on mental health services. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Lynch, has always been very helpful and has made herself available for the debates. I shall ask her again to come in here to address the matter that Senator Moran raised.
I note the points made by Senator Barrett on the fact that over 700 people were tested for drink driving over the weekend in various areas, and only two people were found to have a positive result. That highlights the fact that the message has got across that people should not drink and drive.
Senator Mullins mentioned driving licences and the RSA. He outlined the fact that driving licences are being processed within 12 days or less.
Senator Moloney called for a debate on long-term illness cards. I hope to have the Minister for Health in here soon to discuss the health service plan and many other areas of health.
Senator Wilson congratulated the new president of the GAA, Mr. Aogán Ó Fearghail, who is from Cavan. It is good that we will again see a Cavan man with his hands on the Sam Maguire Cup. It is a long time since that has happened. We congratulate Mr. Ó Fearghaill who is a cousin of the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes. That is another string to his bow.
Senator Brennan mentioned the Rugby World Cup working group that will be chaired by Hugo MacNeil. We commend the group on its forthcoming work. It would be wonderful if Ireland could host a Rugby World Cup.
Senator Healy Eames mentioned mortgage arrears and other points in that regard. I can advise here that the Minister for Finance shall attend here to debate the economy, economic growth and job creation next Tuesday, 4 March.
Senator Norris referred to inland waterways and the Naomh Eanna. This is an appropriate time to raise the issue because tomorrow we will debate inland waterways for over an hour with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, at the request of a number of Members. There will be an opportunity for the Senator to raise the question of the Naomh Eanna during the debate.
I also noted the point made on bullying by the Senator. Bullying in any form is reprehensible.
Senator Conway mentioned problems with the Dublin Airport Authority's pensions and I noted his points in that regard. He also asked that staff transferred from enterprise boards to local authorities would retain the same conditions. I shall bring the matter to the attention of the Minister.
Senator Quinn, when we spoke about post offices, mentioned the need to keep the main streets in towns alive. That is a very important issue throughout the length and breadth of the country and is possibly something that we should debate.
Senator Paul Coghlan tabled a Private Members' motion on car parking charges for out-of-town centres, but we probably should have an overall debate on the issue.
I note Senator Noone's point about the inflated price of holidays abroad by travel agencies during school holidays. It is a matter that has been raised on a number of occasions.
Senator Bradford called for a debate on the situation in Ukraine. I will ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come in here to give an update on that serious issue. I also note the Senator's points on the shortage of housing in Dublin and the fact that there are so many vacant houses elsewhere, and that we could have a debate about rural regeneration in that context.
Senator Clune called for the recent report by Mr. O'Sullivan presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to be debated in the House. I will try to make arrangements for that. It is an important issue which should be addressed and I will ask the relevant Minister to come into the House to debate that report.
Finally, Senator Eamonn Coghlan raised fitness and well-being and his visit to the Cooley Peninsula. He sought a debate on the new Sport Ireland set-up with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn. I will try to facilitate those debates.