Thursday, 29 March 2018
Order of Business
Today's Order of Business is No. 59, motion 14, cross-party motion re Syria, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 1, motion re Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2017 (Increase in Number of Ordinary Members of An Bord Pleanála) Order 2018, back from committee, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 59, motion 14, without debate; No. 2, statements on councillors' conditions, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to adjourn no later than 2.15 p.m. if not previously concluded, with the contributions of each group spokesperson not to exceed eight minutes and of all other Senators not to exceed six minutes; and No. 3, motion re appointment of seven commissioners to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, to be taken at 2.15 p.m. and to conclude no later than 3 p.m., with the contributions of each Senator not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate.
I welcome the former Deputy, Mr. Anthony Lawlor, who is in the Gallery.
There is a slight air of end-of-term giddiness about the place, which is probably not a bad thing in some ways after the week we have had. I welcome the former Deputy, Mr. Lawlor, who may be a future Senator.I am sure we all wish him well in his endeavours in the next few weeks along with some of our candidates running for various positions.
An hour and a half is probably not sufficient to discuss councillors' terms and conditions today. I would expect that 43 of us are in here primarily as a result of votes from councillors and indeed Members of the Oireachtas and I am sure most of us will want to say something on it. As a former trustee of the Association of Irish Local Government and a councillor for 12 and a half years, I certainly want to contribute to the debate on councillors' terms and conditions either today or at some other stage but we have an hour and a half today so I am not going to delay that further.
This day next year will be Brexit day. It is coming faster than anyone would have expected. We are far closer to the day the UK is leaving than the day on which it voted to leave. An awful lot is still uncertain and up in the air, if Members excuse the pun, affecting areas, such as aviation, which are hugely important.
It is a huge issue for anybody living anywhere near the Border in terms of movement. It is a major issue for people in the freight industry, those importing or exporting and agriculture. Our lives will be hugely affected by Brexit and how it pans out. It is very important that we reflect on the fact it will happen this day next year. I acknowledge that there may be a transition agreement. Hopefully, this will be the case and whatever deal we get will be the softest Brexit we can get but it is still a very important point and we need to keep our focus on it and maybe have another debate in here with the relevant Ministers. I accept that nearly every Minister is affected by it but particularly the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
We will not be back by 10 April in time to commemorate the day the Good Friday Agreement, which is 20 years old, was reached. I remember campaigning and voting in the referendum. It was a great piece of work on the part of my former leader and former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, along with Tony Blair and many others in the unionist and nationalist communities. It has served this island and these islands well and we should reflect on it and the fact we have had 20 years of relatively peaceful times. It is important we acknowledge it and I am sure others will make contributions. Perhaps when we come back after the break, we should have statements on it and how it has served us well and certainly put to bed the notion from some people that it should be scrapped, which has been mentioned - certainly in the British Parliament.
Fianna Fáil published a document yesterday on teacher shortages and how to alleviate them in the short term and medium term, including reflecting on pay inequality in the system. Equally, it is very difficult to get people to provide cover if somebody is sick, on maternity leave or on a career break. It particularly affects Irish, the sciences, continental languages, home economics, technical drawing and technical graphics. It is very difficult to get people to provide cover. The Department and the Minister really need to reflect on how we are going to deal with it and the fact that the salary is a national salary with which we are very familiar but that it goes a lot of further in some parts of the country than it does in others. If people getting jobs in south Dublin spot a job somewhere else, they are gone because their disposable income will be far greater.
The homelessness figure is higher than ever. I think an additional 222 families last month were reported as homeless and, overall, nearly 10,000 people in the State were homeless in February. I am sure the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government can bring us lots of statistics about what is actually happening but the figure is getting worse all the time despite what is being done and there needs to be a greater emphasis on it.
On Good Friday, for the first time in 91 years, someone will be able to go into a pub, restaurant or, indeed, a supermarket or off-licence and legally buy a drink. It was this House that launched that and we should reflect on it. Hopefully, people will drink sensibly and enjoy themselves despite what Senator Norris might think. To be honest, the off-licences will be disappointed that they have less time off. I wish everybody a happy Easter. I hope they enjoy the break. I will see all of them after the break.
The second issue I was going to mention was touched on by Senator Horkan, namely, the rising tide of people who have no home. Coming into Leinster House, it was interesting to hear the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government dealing with this issue as best he could in an interview on RTÉ radio. However, the fundamental problem as I see it is that we are not engaged in joined-up thinking on housing, homelessness and the kind of infrastructure we need in Ireland. There are a lot of people in different silos pursuing different projects. It was mentioned by the interviewer on RTÉ, Sean O'Rourke, that student accommodation is now being built at breakneck speed across Dublin. I am acquainted with one project on Church Street opposite where I have an office. It went from nothing to something in the space of a year.
It is extraordinary to see the speed with which these kinds of buildings can be built because there are tax incentives and there is a green light for them. One then asks oneself why it takes so long to build accommodation for other classes of the community. I fully accept the point that if a student is accommodated, some other property is not required elsewhere and, therefore, it has a horizontal effect. We must have a joined-up approach to the kind of cities in which we are planning to live in ten or 20 years' time. Are there to be apartments, is everybody to be a renter from now on or have we abandoned the idea of home ownership? Are we, as a society, creating a new situation in which vulture funds and REITs will be the economic masters of where people live and where and if accommodation is built for them?
Many years ago when I was in the Progressive Democrats, we had an ambitious project to move Dublin Port to Bremore and use the land there for a major high-rise city. Some people described it as a Manhattan in Dublin Port but we must have more imaginative thinking about what kind of city we are building. We are now spending or are planning to spend €4 billion on a metro system to connect Dublin Airport with Sandyford. We are pretending we are consulting the public about it but a vast amount of money has already been spent on this project. The alternatives to that expenditure have not been publicly considered. Should Rathfarnham, Tallaght, Stillorgan, UCD and St. Vincent's hospital be considered? There are all sorts of places on the south side of the city that could be connected but we have this one project to cannibalise the green Luas line, which we recently extended at a cost of €368 million to connect it with Cabra. If someone wants to travel from Bride's Glen to Cabra, he or she must get on a tram at Bride's Glen, get off at Sandyford, get on a tram at Sandyford to bring him or her to Ranelagh and get off the tram there and get on another tram, which will bring him or her through the city. The person will get some exercise going from A to B - there is no doubt about that - but I am really doubtful that anybody is actually planning the city of Dublin. That is the point I am making. Nobody is planning what Dublin should look like. A group of railway engineers is making decisions for billions of euro when we are not planning the housing layout or anything to do with our city. Nobody is taking responsibility for it.
The time has come, and I hope I am not being parochial in talking about Dublin because I am sure the same applies to other cities in the country, where we must have an urban plan. Somebody has to work out whether we really need this metro system, whether it should take certain routes and whether we need housing down on the docks or in Kildare.What kind of city are we building? I am sorry to say that we have got to the point where vast amounts of money are being earmarked for expenditure but nobody is taking any democratic responsibility and nobody is democratically accountable for the decisions that are being made.
I will refer briefly to three things this morning. The first is to welcome the announcement by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, that the Government has agreed to advise our President, Michael D. Higgins, to exercise his constitutional right to grant a pardon to Maolra Seoighe from the Mám Trasna murders. That is a very positive, significant move. I look forward to the programme that is going out on TG4 on Wednesday, 4 April. It will unveil some of the things that happened around that time. It speaks to several different things and the importance of our language, the Irish language, and what happened there. I welcome that move by the Minister for Justice and Equality.
It is with a heavy heart that I go on the Easter break. I listened to Sister Stanislaus Kennedy talking this morning about the increase in the homelessness figure. Sometimes we have a lot of banter in here and the other House about political perceptions and all that but what really brought it home to me was her saying that there is an abject Government failure in dealing with the housing crisis. I know that she would not say that lightly. She is a woman of great integrity and experience and she said it happened either through inability or failure, in that the Government did not care in terms of the provision of housing and preventing the things that continue to make people, families and children homeless. I hope, now that the Government spin unit is being got rid of, that these things, such as homelessness, can be really faced up to and the reality of homelessness can be dealt with. Listening to the announcement of the recent figure and to what Sister Stanislaus Kennedy had to say, it would be easy to feel a sense of hopelessness about this. We all need to work together. I know my party has put forward proposition after proposition on tackling homelessness and the Government needs to take heed of them and do something urgently about it.
In light of the recent Belfast rape trial, while I am not specifically talking about that case, we need to learn from two aspects of it. There is an absolute need for an all-island approach to dealing with sexual violence and gender-based violence and over the coming months, I would like to work on that so that we can take the best bits from both areas to have solid legislation that will make this a safer place for women. I also urge those within the media and responsible reporters to come together with the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, to have a protocol for the reporting of gender-based violence and to work with the front-line services on that protocol so that we never again have to witness some of the headlines that have appeared in recent weeks. I ask them to think if it was their daughters or sisters, they would report the same headlines as they have reported over the last period.
I have to laugh at the idea that an hour and a half is not long enough to discuss councillors' well-being and such. I know this is all about Members of the Seanad who are elected by councils lickspittling their electorate-----
I would like to say that they do not have much courage when it comes to looking at our own terms and conditions. Very few voices are raised in here. When I raised this the other day, I was mocked for my pains by Miriam Lord. I am going to continue to do it. There are 111 civil servants in Leinster House who get more than we get. The long-service increment was abolished. I do not know of another job that does not have a long service increment. I get the same after 32 years and about ten elections fought and won as somebody who was nominated the other day.
Senator Horkan is dealing with that but why does he not speak out about our issues? Why do Senators not have some guts and talk about it? One will not get many energetic, brilliant young minds into politics if one continues to pay them dirt.
The 10,000 homeless figure is appalling. I listened to Sister Stanislaus Kennedy who said there was a failure. There was an amendment introduced in the Dáil at the behest of her organisation which would protect people in a situation, for example, where somebody was a tenant in an apartment and the apartment was sold over that person's heads, following which that person could be immediately evicted. That is appalling. We heard all this stuff about 1916, the great leaders and so on but how is it tolerable in an Irish Republic in the 21st century for people to be evicted? When it was 5,000 not so long ago, I warned that it would soon be 10,000, then 15,000, then 20,000. The Government was incapable of dealing with 5,000 homeless. How on earth will it deal with 10,000? There is a Bill in my name on the Order Paper of this House which would deal with this situation and get rid of the vulture funds. I hope in the first weeks of the new term, when we get back after Easter, that we can address this issue.
Finally, I understand that the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will discuss some time in the future my suggestion that we remove Standing Order 41, which prohibits Members from putting down amendments which create a charge on the Exchequer. This was Mr. de Valera really trying to keep the Seanad as weak as possible. We should stand up to it and fight for ourselves. This only allows discussion. Surely Seanad Éireann is about discussion. We are always talking about reform of the Seanad and not a damn thing has happened. This is one way in which we ourselves are responsible and can take action to ensure that the proper debate on economic subjects is allowed. The Government can reverse it in this House or the other House, but we should allow for discussion. If this is not changed, every time a Member stands up in this House and complains - Members from all sides and from all parties and none complain about this measure - having done nothing about it, I will publicly shame him or her.
On this day, one year from Brexit, it is worth recalling in this House that one of the great successes of the EU has been the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. The Common Agricultural Policy has ensured an adequate supply of food at all times at a reasonable, affordable price for consumers, and a high standard of food. That is a misunderstood aspect of the Common Agricultural Policy at times. It makes sure that people can get food, that there is enough food and that it can be reasonably priced. It has to be subsidised to achieve that. It is of extraordinary importance to farmers in this country. The Teagasc report said that it ranges from 38% of income on dairy farms to an extraordinary 115% on cattle rearing farms. It is of huge importance to the farmers. It is of particular importance this year because of the very difficult winter, fodder price, margins being reduced and psychological and financial stress that that is creating for farmers. That brings the importance of the CAP into focus. To give a practical example, in County Cavan, current figures show that the CAP brings in €54 million while it brings in €41 million into County Monaghan. It is obviously crucial to the local economy.It could be said that rural Ireland effectively depends on the Common Agricultural Policy and that were it to suffer, one could close down rural Ireland, including small towns, villages and the entire human infrastructure. My point is that in the context of Brexit, which is going to happen in some form, it is crucial that we preserve the Common Agricultural Policy and its budget here. There must be no diminution of that budget. If anything, it needs to increase to take account of the very low margins in the current environment. I will not go through the list of schemes that can arise from this. That is another day's debate. However, I am asking the Leader to make sure that Commissioner Hogan appears before the House, as he is planning to do, to discuss the maintenance of the Common Agricultural Policy. I also ask that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, comes into the House to discuss how he proposes to pursue this fight within a European context. This is a question of national interest that is surpassed by none other.
I request the Leader of the House to keep No. 2, "Statements on Councillors’ Conditions", open-ended, in order that we can come back to it at a further time. There are several Members here who would like to contribute to that. Senator Norris ably represents Trinity College, and his graduates and electorate, and Michael McDowell, who is a senior counsel, represents the graduates of the National University of Ireland ably and well. As such, I offer no apology. Our electorate are councillors, Deputies and Senators and we are entitled to represent their views. To give an example, in County Roscommon, the number of councillors was reduced from 26 to 18 but there was no increase in the remuneration of councillors. The amount of work has increased and they are more in demand than any Member of this House - or most Members of this House - except those running for election to Dáil Éireann. They have a very good case. Their salary is pegged at approximately 25% of a Senator's salary. Were it increased to 33% without having this regular debate, at least one would have a reasonable amount of money to survive.
The Minister, Deputy Ross, reprimanded me for making a statement here about the unfortunate disaster of the Rugby World Cup. It would be in Ireland if the Government was more active. He is very sensitive about it. He told me not to darken his door and that his vote was gone. I am very sorry, because I really needed that vote and he was very good to me in the past. I have to admit that. He was very generous.
Most council meetings are now broadcast live on the Internet. As such, there is a very high standard among councillors, and it is very competitive. Just like Senators, councillors always communicating via emails or mobile telephone. Life has changed. In order to be fair and not to have this as a permanent issue, let us do something sensible. Let us not be afraid of the electoral situation. All the political parties are afraid to say too much about councillors' pay because there could be a backlash. As far as I am concerned, let there be a backlash, and let there be fairness.
I was sitting in my office, minding my own business, preparing for the debate on councillors when Senator Norris got to his feet. He is one of my electorate. I am not afraid to talk about our terms and conditions of employment.
I published a rapporteur's report in February 2016 on the class K arrangements for pay related social insurance, PRSI. Along with five councillors, I also took a court case against the State for introducing class K PRSI, which is a tax on public service. I pay 4% of my salary to the PRSI fund and I get nothing for it. If I fall sick when I leave here, I get no entitlements. When I came into this House, I was forced to pack in my teaching job and take a career break.
We need to be brave. I make no apology whatsoever to the public for the job I do. Nobody in the public, apart from the extremely rich, pays class K PRSI contributions. My court case was settled a couple of weeks ago and the councillors that took that case with me were looked after. Ultimately, however, we did not succeed in having class K PRSI banned. It is all very well for us sitting here. Think of this. A young Deputy who gets elected into the House, spends one term here and then leaves, having lost his or her seat, has no PRSI entitlements whatsoever. Such Deputies have broken their PRSI record while giving this State service. That is wrong.
I wish to note the kind response to my family members coming to the House. I especially thank the Chair for acknowledging my aunt.
I wish to raise the issue of the Wild Atlantic Way and its success. That infrastructure, starting in Kinsale and continuing all along the west coast, has been a fantastic success. As a consequence, the west coast and the southern region are alive with tourists. An issue, however, has emerged over the last few weeks or months. A review of the Wild Atlantic Way to consider the inclusion of other areas was proposed. I refer to Union Hall in particular. The Minister visited Union Hall last July and announced that a review would be carried out early in 2018. He said there would be a comprehensive review with a new link in Union Hall proposed for this summer season. That has not happened yet. We need to examine the Wild Atlantic Way, pursue this review and ensure that these small beautiful villages all along the west and south coasts of Ireland can be included in this unbelievable story. The Wild Atlantic Way has changed the outlook for tourism in the towns and villages along that driving route. We need to work with that key infrastructure and expand it. I welcome the review; I just need it to happen. We must make sure that those towns and villages that are slightly off the Wild Atlantic Way are included.
The Leader has very kindly agreed to have a debate on councillors' pay and conditions as soon as the Order of Business has concluded at 12.45 p.m. I think it is inappropriate to raise this again, if Senators would not mind. It is pointless to bring the Minister here for an hour and a half. We should discuss other issues. The Leader has his job done and the Minister can answer any queries Senators may have.
I ask the Leader to raise my first issue with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Ms Danielle McLaughlin was a young women from my home town of Buncrana in County Donegal. I know her family very well. Just over a year ago, she was murdered in the most appalling circumstances in Goa, India. Liaising with her mother, Andrea, and her family was a real education for me. I learned something about just what happens to Irish citizens when they are in this situation overseas. This case involved the most awful thing that can happen to a family. Danielle, like many Irish people, was born outside of the island, but moved home at a very early age.She was raised in Buncrana from where her family come and was an Irish citizen, holding both an Irish and a British passport. She travelled on her British passport while in India. While I do not propose to discuss the case in great detail, I was extremely disappointed with the initial response of our consular services to Danielle's death. I have dealt with our consular services overseas many times and they are usually brilliant. In this case, I believe they were leaning on the fact that Danielle held a British passport. I made clear to them that many Irish people who are born overseas have several passports and pointed out that I knew Danielle's family. Eventually, the position improved a little. The family had to rely on the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust, a fantastic organisation established by the Bell family after they endured a similar experience with a loved one. The trust assured the McLaughlin family and did more in India to bring Danielle home than our consulate did. While the consulate eventually assisted with bits and bobs, the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust did fantastic work, as it has done in many other cases. I apologise for running a little over time but I ask the Cathaoirleach to give me one more minute to discuss this sensitive issue.
Our consular services failed initially to help with repatriation costs. Unfortunately, many people have died in controversial circumstances in Goa. There are problems with the legal system in the region, meaning cases tend to drag on and can fall down the list. For this reason, families of victims must have legal representatives in India to ensure justice is served. The McLaughlin family have not received any financial assistance from the Government. I ask the Leader to raise this matter with the Minister and request that some level of financial assistance be provided in cases such as the Danielle McLaughlin case. Families should not have to rely on fund-raising to secure justice, as the McLaughlin family must do for their daughter.
Unfortunately, Sinn Féin cannot support the taking of the motion on Syria without debate. We raised the issue of human rights abuses on all sides, including widespread human rights abuses associated with the Turkish invasion and siege of the city of Afrin. We also asked that the motion be amended to secure all-party co-operation. I ask for a debate on the motion because, sadly, Sinn Féin will oppose it if the House does not agree to a debate.
I had intended to thank the Leader for proposing to take the motion on Syria without debate. I had not realised it would give rise to conflict but I will be pleased to withdraw it to try to reach an agreed version of the text. I corresponded with all the group leaders on the motion and I was aware that Sinn Féin was not willing to sign up to it. However, we secured support from the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties, Senator Higgins and, obviously, the Technical Group and Labour Party, which initiated the motion. I am disappointed there is contention regarding the motion, which focuses specifically on the terrible atrocities in eastern Ghouta and civilian deaths in that region. Our desire was to focus on that issue. Colleagues can table motions on human rights abuses and violations in other areas and I would be pleased to support them. I communicated with Senator Conway-Walsh that I could not accept the amendments she suggested to the original version of the motion. However, I accepted amendments from other colleagues and I believed we had produced a fairly uncontentious motion calling for repeated, continuous and unhindered access to eastern Ghouta and other besieged areas in Syria for United Nations-led humanitarian relief operations. As I stated, I am willing, with the assent of the Leader, to withdraw it from the Order Paper if there is some dispute over it. I am disappointed nonetheless.
Perhaps we could debate when the House returns after the break. As I said, I understood there was strong support for the people of Syria in this House. I am, therefore, disappointed by this.
On the verdict announced yesterday in the trial in Belfast, I ask the Leader to arrange a debate when we return on the trial of sex offences in this jurisdiction. We have had some significant changes to the law here and reforms in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act. The Domestic Violence Bill, which is before the Dáil this week, will also make some changes. We could reflect further on how we can reform our processes to ensure the experience of reporting a rape or sexual assault and giving evidence in court is not like a secondary victimisation for any complainant. I am conscious, as I have outlined elsewhere, that the procedures here are more humane for both the accused and complainants in terms of publicity and privacy in the courtroom and so on.
I wish Senators a happy Easter. On our return on 17 April, we will have a transition year debate with Díospóireacht na nÓg in the Seanad Chamber, as agreed by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, as part of our Vótáil 100 programme to commemorate the centenary of women's suffrage. I hope colleagues from all sides will be able to come along and watch 16 wonderful young people taking part in the debate in the Seanad Chamber.
I raise the issue of Parkinson's disease. A recently published report indicates that unfortunately, the incidence of the disease in this country is increasing. It also highlights that Ireland lags behind international standards on the treatments and back-up supports available to people who suffer from this horrible disease. I understand families of loved ones affected by the condition will protest outside the gates of the House this afternoon and I have no doubt Members of both Houses will take the opportunity to attend. I understand only a small number of specialist nurses are available to families of people with Parkinson's disease, with none available in counties Monaghan, Cavan and Roscommon. I ask the Leader to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Health to ensure it is addressed as a matter of urgency.
Páraic Duffy will complete his term as ard-stiúrthóir of the GAA in the next week or thereabouts. Mr. Duffy has been in the role for the past ten years and has performed in a competent and efficient manner. The people of County Monaghan are well aware of his ability from his former role as principal of St. Macartan's College for many years. I am glad people nationally are now aware of the ability he brought to the position of ard-stiúrthóir. Mr. Duffy steered the GAA through a difficult decade caused by the recession and emigration and transformed the all-Ireland club football championship to give players more time to play club football, which is vital. I acknowledge his contribution to the GAA and wish him and his family well in the next phase of his life. I understood he has taken up a role as selector for his beloved Scotstown GAA club and I wish him well in that regard.
Yesterday, our colleague, Senator Feighan, referred to a visit to London earlier this week of a delegation from the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs and the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The group was comprised of Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, Senators Richmond, O'Reilly, Black, Mark Daly and myself. I was honoured to be part of the delegation which met some very interesting people, notably the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Mr. David Lidington, who is an interesting man. Ireland has some great friends in the Labour Party, including the Members of Parliament, Hilary Benn, Conor McGinn and Keir Starmer. We also had informative meetings with the chairpersons of various committees. We were scheduled to meet Mr. David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union but he was indisposed. However, we met his under-secretary of state, a most interesting lady. We invited all those we met to visit Ireland, specifically the Border region, and I believe they will all take up our invitation. Some of those who have visited the Border already intend visiting again.
It is helpful that the Labour Party in Britain has formally adopted a policy of maintaining a customs union. This approach could assist the minority Government of Prime Minister Theresa May who is experiencing difficulties because she presides over a divided Cabinet and party. We met people on all sides of the Conservative Party. I do not believe the British wish to ignore the European market of 500 million people. Negotiations towards alignment will proceed slowly but we must be patient. I believe some form of customs partnership will ultimately be agreed, perhaps as late as October.We do not know what it will be called but it will be as close as it can to alignment between the UK and the EU. Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker intends to visit Ireland and I reiterate the call to the Leader to have him invited to address the House. Commissioner Phil Hogan is coming and will address us in due course. They are very informative people. The visits we undertook are very important to maintain and improve relations and we did achieve that.