Thursday, 22 November 2018
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill 2016 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 12.45 p.m.; No. 2, Home Building Finance Ireland Bill 2018 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken on conclusion of No. 1 and to adjourn not later than 2 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 3, motion regarding the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to adjourn not later than 4 p.m., with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than six minutes to reply to the debate.
I raise a housing issue I have raised previously in the House. It relates to the Player Wills site on the South Circular Road. This site abuts a site owned by Dublin City Council at St. Teresa's Gardens. It is in the control of NAMA and is on the vacant sites register with a value of €23 million. In the week NAMA put it up for sale, I asked in the House that the Government take control of the property for mixed housing use, but this has not happened. This is a great example of how we could have a really well planned urban village off the South Circular Road. When the Player Wills site and St. Teresa's Gardens are taken into account, it is an enormous site. We need to come up with clever planning solutions and a way to develop the site so that it is in harmony with the rest of the area.
The area lacks playing fields and an area within the St. Teresa's Gardens site is earmarked for a decent playing pitch. We need to ensure a planning application is submitted and see some movement on the St. Teresa's Gardens site. If the NAMA site is sold to a private developer we need to ensure the private developer develops it in line with the ultimate plan for the area because it represents a great opportunity.
I express my disgust at the vandalising of the Haunting Soldier statue in St. Stephen's Green.
My great grandfather, Patrick Ardagh, served as a baker in the British Army at that time. I find it disgusting that thugs would cause this damage to a statue of a soldier when so many of us have relatives who fought in the First World War.
I thank Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane for their service to the Irish football team. I once had the opportunity to meet Martin O'Neill and he is a real gentleman. He and Roy Keane did us proud over their tenure. I will be sad to see them go. In my opinion they found it difficult to get decent players to come over. I am a big fan of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane. I thank them again.
Two distressing issues came to my attention in the last 24 hours. Senator Ó Ríordáin was with me last night at Scoil Chiaráin in Donnycarney where we met parents of children with special needs who are being utterly neglected. Scoil Chiaráin is an ordinary primary school and yet almost 50% of its pupils have special needs or are on the autism spectrum. While the school is magnificent and supportive in every way, none of these parents can get outside help for their children from the HSE.
One parent became quite distressed during the evening. Her son is nine and because he is on the spectrum every year his needs change, which is quite normal for a child with autism. Last year this child was eating clothes. This year he has lost all sense of mobility, which is also quite normal during the development of a child with autism. However, it took four years for the HSE to assess him and he has now been waiting for two years for a follow up. That was just one parent. Several other parents also broke down. The people who are looking after the children are the parents along with the special needs assistants and teachers in the school. None of them is sufficiently qualified to be able to handle children with autism.There was a distressing article on thejournal.iethis morning about another child, aged 15, who is presenting with terribly disturbing behaviour. She is self-harming and suicidal all the time. If she sees tablets in someone's handbag, she will grab them and swallow them. She has been placed in Wexford General Hospital and yesterday had spent 115 days waiting for a child-appropriate bed, yet the HSE will state over and over that children with mental health difficulties stay, at most, two or three days. A bed is available for the child in Kildare but she cannot be placed in it because the HSE says it does not have the funding, yet it is costing it €40,000 per month to keep the child in Wexford General Hospital. I do not get it. After two and a half years listening from this side of the fence and after decades on the other side, I suggest we should petition to have children's mental health and disability services removed from the Department of Health and placed under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, under the guardianship of its Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone. I do not know whether this is possible but I will try to pursue it because the children are being overlooked all the time by the Department of Health. Every single day we hear about issues concerning children, and every single day they are being ignored. I ask Members to support me on this.
I join Senator Ardagh in condemning, in the strongest terms, the vandalism or attack on the First World War monument last night. Many years ago I was part of a delegation, organised by the late Paddy Harte, a man who served these Houses for many years. I travelled with mayors, including mayors from Donegal, and republicans, nationalists and unionists. We went to the battle sites of the First World War and the memorial points, including the Somme, Ypres and Messines. The monument site is a place where republicans, unionists and nationalists can, and must, unite to remember the tens of thousands of young men from this island who went to the region and were slaughtered in the most horrific circumstances. We can all agree on this. The memorial at the Island of Ireland Peace Park does not glorify the war; it remembers the men who died on both sides and, in particular, the poetry of individuals such as Francis Ledwidge. We need to make it clear on this island that this is not a debate about wearing poppies but about remembering nationalists and unionists who, 100 years ago and more, were slaughtered together. It is a matter on which one can unite the traditions on the island to try to move away from the violence in our own history and find points that unite us. The memorial site is a place at which we can unite. Last night's attack, therefore, was an attack on the Irish people collectively. It has to be condemned. Those who believe in the viewpoint demonstrated in the attack need to be challenged by republicans, unionists and nationalists.
I convey my concern to Senator Richmond and the Government on the direct provision centre developments in recent times. The system is built on the private sector making available hotels, old convents and family centres, such as Mosney, to be utilised for the service. What is happening, however, is that around Dublin such buildings are now becoming profitable and viable as commercial entities, and they will be closed one by one. I was the Chairman of an Oireachtas committee that examined the system and visited the centres. I know the system well. Centres have been pushed further and further from Dublin. The most recent development is in Moville on the Inishowen peninsula. It is not practical for the asylum seekers. The Irish Refugee Council has spoken out strongly about what is happening. This needs to be dealt with urgently.
There is a complete absence of consultation with local communities. There is a lack of additional resources. One cannot say to those in a place such as Moville, which has a population of 1,300, that in two weeks there will be 100 additional people and that the authorities have not talked to the general practitioners, schools and community groups in advance. It was stated that consultation or a public meeting is not helpful to the process. One cannot work on that basis. It is certainly not in the interest of the poor asylum seekers who have come here to try to build a better life and who are stuck in the system. It is certainly not in the interest of communities. One should remember that in all the experiences we have had so far, the communities will stand by and help the asylum seekers but they just want to be respected. They want to be afforded the basic courtesy of being told what is happening and being assisted. There needs to be an urgent review and it needs to be dealt with.
I wish to raise two issues with the Leader this morning, one being Operation Freeflow. Traffic congestion has become a genuine issue since the recovery, bearing in mind the number of people who have returned to work and the way in which our city centres, in Dublin, Limerick and Cork, have become extremely busy. Peter Horgan has been raising this issue in Cork for a long time. What I propose was not practical when Templemore Garda College was closed by the previous Government. It has reopened, however, so there is an opportunity to use the trainee gardaí to keep our bus corridors free. The initiative needs to be much bigger, however. There has to be a joined-up plan to suspend non-essential road works during busy periods and to provide temporary park-and-ride facilities that encourage people not to use their private cars and instead use public transport to go to our commercial centres. I would very much like the Leader to raise this issue with the relevant Ministers. It covers the Departments responsible for both justice and transport. I would very much appreciate it if the Leader raised this with them as soon as possible.
The other issue is much more important. It concerns our response to the housing crisis. There is a lack of long-term planning. In our speedy reaction, allowing private developers to respond, we will create another crisis. In the centre of Dublin, in particular, large institutional investors are buying up the available properties. An article in The Irish Timestoday referred to a development of approximately 170 homes in Rathgar. They are to be purchased by institutional landlords to rent. There is a role for the rental market but there is also a need for supply to allow people to purchase a home. Supply is drying up because of institutional investors. There is no opportunity for people to buy and this will lead to long-term problems. There will be a reduction in supply for purchasers. Our pensions system operates on the basis that people will have finished paying their mortgages at the age of 65 or 66. If the Government has decided to move the vast majority of people into rental accommodation, not out of choice but out of necessity, it will have long-term implications for those concerned when they reach pensionable age, at which time their income will be reduced. They will be unable to pay the high rents sought by institutional investors. We need rent for life, not for profit. We are very much seeing rent for profit now. It is an ideological problem because the Government is wedded to the idea of private development. We need to get away from this. We need a long-term solution, and the State can play a much greater role. We are driving young people out of our city centres with the policies the Government is unfortunately pursuing.It is supporting landlords and not young couples and families who want to purchase homes of their own.
I also condemn the criminal damage done to the First World War soldier statue in St. Stephen's Green. While we can be very upset, it certainly does not reflect the mood of the people. Over the past few months and weeks of commemoration, the generosity shown by the people and politicians across all parties has at last shown respect to men and women from our country who died between 1914 and 1918. These mindless idiots should go away because they are not welcome. Their views are not welcome and are out of touch with the commemoration and respect that has been shown in the past few months.
Tá súil agam go ngabhfaidh an Cathaoirleach mo leithscéal go bhfuil mo shrón plúchta inniu. I raise the plight of school secretaries. Everyone in the Chamber fully appreciates the great work school secretaries do throughout the country. Many schools could not operate without them. The problem we have is there is a two-tier structure for school secretaries. There are approximately 3,500 of them throughout the country and 10% are employed by the Department of Education and Skills and enjoy decent terms and conditions. Unfortunately, 90% do not enjoy such luxuries. They are paid out of school funds which are also used to pay the school caretaker and other expenses. As we all know, funds for schools are very limited. The problem the 90% have is that when it comes to school holidays, they are forced to sign on for social welfare. They do not enjoy any sick leave entitlements. Their salaries are also very poor. On average, they earn slightly over €12,500 per annum. It is something that needs to be addressed. I ask that the Minister for Education and Skills comes to the House to map out a road plan for us so that 90% of school secretaries, who we all agree are doing an excellent job, are paid a decent wage and have decent terms and conditions for the more than decent job they do.
I join with others who have mentioned the damage to the sculpture in St. Stephen's Green this morning. When I joined the British Army and arrived in the depot of the Royal Irish Rangers, one of the things one had to learn was the battle honours of the regiment. The battle honours of the regiment included the battle honours of the Connaught Rangers. It included the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Munster Fusiliers and all the great southern Irish regiments. I have never been any less an Irish man that anyone in this room. Like thousands of other Irish men, I served under the Crown. The damage last night was carried out by thugs who see themselves as more Irish than me and more Irish than the thousands like me who served in the British Army. I was delighted to hear a member of Sinn Féin condemn the behaviour this morning.
The Acting Leader will be aware of the work being done by Vice President Timmermans in the European Union with respect to subsidiarity and proportionality. It strikes me as rather odd that Europe is trying to drive decision-making to the lowest possible level and in Ireland we are trying to centralise it. It is something we should explore in the House given the majority of our electorate are members of local authorities throughout the country. I wonder why we feel the need to take away from local authorities the powers they have and strip them of powers. It has been ongoing for some period of time. The Timmermans report has been published and everybody in this House should get their hands on a copy of it and read it. It would be in order to have a debate in the House to discuss it. I ask the Acting Leader to bring it to the attention of the Leader to see if we can organise it with the appropriate Minister.
I will talk about mental health services and the lack of any facilities or plans in the area. To listen to Senator Freeman this morning, one would think we had it planned but we have nothing planned. I will talk about mental health in Ireland in 2018. There are very few proper facilities. Family members, young and old, have to go to Northern Ireland or England to get proper facilities. At second level, children with mental health issues are being prescribed drugs. If they are not willing or if parents do not want their kids to take these drugs they are told to take them out of school and educate them at home. That is the status of mental health services in Ireland in 2018. Last Christmas in my constituency of Meath West, we had family members on the banks of the Boyne and Blackwater rivers waiting to hear news of family members who had disappeared. The other night I lost a friend with mental health issues; it was sad to see Colin suffer over the past few months. The services did absolutely nothing. We have put €30 million to €40 million into mental health services in the past two years in two budgets but it has gone past the day of prescribing medicines and drugs and letting people back out on the streets, saying "There you go, you're all right now, off you go." We need proper facilities. We need a plan. Perhaps in certain cases we have to look at the way it was done years ago. I do not think letting people with mental health issues back out on the streets does them or their families any good. We really have to look at this issue. I would like a discussion in the House and to bring in the Minister and look at a plan for the way forward in mental health services in Ireland.
Strangely enough I also want to talk about an ex-British soldier. I am sure the Acting Leader, political animal that he is, will be familiar with Harry Leslie Smith who finds himself gravely ill in hospital in Canada. For colleagues who do not know - I am sure they are a minority - Harry was born in 1923 in abject poverty in a time before the NHS in England. He fought in the Second World War as an RAF pilot. Even at this advanced stage of life in his 90s, he is the most active of activists in international solidarity and social justice, supporting the plight of refugees all around the world. He has gone to visit refugees and also taken on the culture and ideology that tries to stop these poor unfortunate people from travelling to sanctuary and safety wherever in the world they are. I became familiar with him via Twitter because even in his 90s he was as vocal as he could be about the rising tide of fascism in Europe and North America. He was still prepared at this stage in his life, as he was in his 20s, to take a stand against it and encourage all of us to take a stand against it. He is gravely ill in Canada. He was just about to take part in another visit to refugee camps and unfortunately his son, John, is now using Harry's Twitter to tell us about the day-to-day situation they find themselves in as a family.
Harry Leslie Smith has been a champion of the NHS in Britain.He has alerted the British people to the impending destruction and dismantling of that most precious and inspiring creation of the British state and people. The strange thing is that his Twitter handle is @harryslaststand but I am sure this is not his last stand. We should all follow his example and take that stand for what he believes in and has stood for, his principles and his approach to life.
I raise again the issue raised previously by Senator Freeman, namely, that of children with special needs. I also attended the meeting last night in Donnycarney and I listened to parents in deep distress talk about the lack of services available to them. I have also been dealing this week with a family in Raheny whose daughter, Abigail, was diagnosed with autism at two years of age. The family has been told that she is unlikely to get access to an early intervention team until she reaches five years of age. Without wanting to get political about this, the Taoiseach stated that he can throw away €3 billion in taxes over the next five years. This is at a time when families are exhausted, suffering and wounded by their experience of having to go to war with the State, which is what happens when one has a child with special educational needs. The State does not provide these people with support to maximise their children's potential. In effect, they must go to war with the State.
The Department of Health, as Senator Freeman suggested, and the Department of Education and Skills are completely unequipped to deal with this matter. It may be time for the sections of those Departments which deal with children with special educational needs to be transferred to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in circumstances in which they do not have a feel for it, warmth for it or compassion for it, perhaps because there are so many other things on their agendas. For children with special educational needs, their families and parents who are exhausted and war-weary, it is time for the State to implement an administrative change by moving responsibility to another Department. Certainly, I hope the Taoiseach will talk less about tax cuts and more about investment in children and families.
As others have done, I condemn absolutely those who last night vandalised the monument to those Irishmen, mainly, who died in the First World War. Family members of mine are buried at Gallipoli and the Somme. The Ó Ríordáins were once the Riordans but my great grandfather, who was a tailor in the British Army, inserted an "Ó" to emphasise his Irishness. I have family members who fought in the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. I would not wear a poppy or a lily, but anyone who decides to paint on or desecrate a monument of that nature, as happened last night, insults every single Irishman and Irishwoman in this State and across the globe. It is gratifying and comforting to know that people from across the House have prioritised that message this morning and are stating collectively that we want to remember those who have fallen in war and ensure we never make those mistakes again.
When will the Local Government Bill 2018 come before the House? The Bill is currently on Second Stage in the Dáil. I am deeply concerned about the pace at which the Bill - the purpose of which is to make major changes to boundaries in Cork city and county - is being dealt with. The Bill contains a proposal to transfer responsibility for 147 sq. km of land and 80,000 residents from Cork county to Cork city. It is significant legislation but the real issue is the timing relating to it and where we are going in the context of the local elections that are due to be held in the middle of next year. There are genuine concerns at local authority level and among the general public regarding the clarification of boundaries in order that we might know where the city and county will be divided. From a purely administrative point of view, if one is going to transfer responsibility for 80,000 residents from the county into the city, there will have to be significant administrative changes all the way through local government services. The Bill is primary legislation designed to facilitate all of that.
We have been informed that it is hoped to enact the legislation by the end of the year. That is a very tight timeframe. We are looking at the bones of three and a half weeks to get it through yet it has not even come before the Seanad. I ask the Leader for clarity on the status of the Bill, when it will be coming to the Chamber and whether we will be in a situation whereby sufficient time can be provided before Christmas to enact it and have it signed into law by the new year. This is a significant issue. If the legislative change is not going to be brought in by the end of 2018, it is quite possible that it will be pushed out into February. That will present us with an unfortunate dilemma in circumstances in which we need certainty about boundaries and where officials are moving to. These issues need to be clarified.
The review of councillors' pay and expenses was to be produced by Ms Sara Morehead, SC, before the end of November. The Leader might find out for the House if that is on track and if we will have it next week. The substantive issue I raise today involves a call for the Leader to bring the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to the House to explain what he intends to do to reverse the untold harm he is doing to rural Ireland. He made a shallow promise of buses for rural Ireland as part of his legislative agenda but it has proven to be a pipe dream. There was only one public house in my locality and that closed in the last month. It was the only one within a seven mile radius. The closure of the Cloughan Inn was a direct result of the new measures introduced by the Minister. At various stages, it was a céilí house, a grocery store and, in more recent times, a meeting place for all political parties, the IFA, many GAA clubs and most other initiatives in the locality. While the adjoining restaurant is struggling on, the closure of the bar does not paint a rosy picture for that either. This is a blow by proxy to the community of Cloughan and the surrounding area. I ask the Leader to bring the Minister to the House to account for his campaign against rural Ireland. He made a promise on transport, but it was a puff of smoke. His statements regarding what he would do to save rural Ireland were mere smoke and mirrors.
I wish to raise an issue that was brought to my attention by members of the Defence Forces based in Athlone, namely, a marked increase in the number of drones being flown over the midlands. The air ambulance is based in Custume Barracks, Athlone - which is something of which I am very proud and for which I fought hard - and it serves the midlands and areas further afield very well as it responds to medical emergencies. It operates at all times. According to the Defence Forces, drones should not be flown within three miles of Custume Barracks or, indeed, any barracks because they interfere with helicopters taking off and landing. Any such interference, puts lives at risk.I ask the Acting Leader to ask the relevant Minister - I am not sure whether we are talking about the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport or the Minister for Justice and Equality - to come to the House for a debate on the use of drones near Custume Barracks in Athlone. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is responsible for drones, but the Department of Justice and Equality is responsible for who enforces the existing laws in this area, which need to be enforced.
I welcome the students in the Gallery. It is always great to see young people in this House. I assure them that we talk about them here.
I would like to respond to what Senator Freeman has said about a child who is waiting for services. It is an appalling vista. The Taoiseach has spent the past few weeks talking about making tax cuts over a period of five years. Every programme that the Government announces now is for another five years. We do not need to remind ourselves that Fine Gael has been in government for seven years. I am not here to criticise Fine Gael because it does many good things and I support many of its initiatives. I can honestly say that the treatment of children in this State is an absolute disgrace. Senators Freeman and Ó Ríordáin and other Members have spoken about the appalling and disgraceful experiences of children. It is an indictment of politics, and of the system across the board, that our children are being told they cannot have access to facilities and proper and decent healthcare because of funding. I spoke in this House recently about the closure of the children's unit in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire. We constantly hear excuses from the Minister when he says that these are budgetary matters. He blames the HSE and everybody else. The Minister for Health and the Government are ultimately responsible for the delivery of proper and appropriate healthcare services for our people. We can no longer allow the Government of the day to come in here and make excuses. It has to be held to account. All of us must hold them to account. It is an absolute disgrace. The Minister, Deputy Harris, needs to be brought back in here to focus specifically on all forms of child healthcare, including child mental health issues. He needs to be grilled and held to account because it is an absolute scandal. There will be an election months from now.
People will be going out and talking about the wonderful service we have. I am sick of hearing lectures about a new republic of opportunity where we care for everyone equally. I will leave it at that. I ask the Acting Leader to arrange for the Minister to come in.
I would also like him to tell us when the Government intends to introduce legislation to underpin the Land Development Agency. Despite all the public relations, no specific money has been set aside for the agency.
I would like to respond to the previous speaker by mentioning a big change in healthcare that has occurred in the past two years. There have been increases in the health budget and in the number of people employed in the health service. The cutbacks we had to endure for the first four years after we took office in 2011 are on longer happening. I will mention some figures. The number of people working in the health service has increased by 13,000 since 2014. Those people are employed across the board. There are questions to be asked about proportionality in respect of the new people who have been taken on. I have taken this up with the Minister for Health and the HSE. We need to make sure we continue to deliver services. When we look at healthcare in this country, it is interesting to note that life expectancy is continuing to increase. Over the past 15 or 16 years, it has increased by 2.5 years for both men and women. Such issues need to be taken into account. The big challenge we face is to deliver a healthcare system that serves people in all age groups who are young, middle aged or old. I agree with my colleague that there are deficiencies in the system. We need to work to resolve those problems.
I will mention one area that I want to work on. It was interesting to learn at yesterday's meeting of the Joint Committee on Health, at which various people discussed the evaluation of orphan drugs, that there are between 6,000 and 8,000 different rare diseases. The problem we have in Ireland is that the number of people with a particular rare disease can be quite small. I recently dealt with a case in which ten people in this country would benefit from a new drug that is being brought onto the market by a pharmaceutical company. Our process for dealing with access to medicines, particularly new medicines for the treatment of lung cancer and other forms of cancer, is slow. We need to look towards having a national medicines policy, which is something we are missing. Such a policy is needed to expedite access to medicines in a timely manner. We have fallen behind a number of countries in respect of the time involved in getting access to new medicines. We are behind 13 other western European countries in that regard. We need to work on that. It might be helpful to have a debate on the cost of drugs and pharmaceuticals in this country, compared to other countries. We need to consider how we can make the process more efficient and how we can get value for money as we ensure treatment is provided to those who require assistance.
I join other colleagues in condemning the attack on the war memorial last night. It is obvious from the use of red paint that it was not a random act. It was premeditated and deliberate. Given that the monument in question commemorates thousands of Irish people from both sides of the political divide who lost their lives, last night's act says more about those who carried it out than it does about the offence that they assume the statue is causing.
I echo the call made by Senator Craughwell yesterday for a debate on the responsible use of social media. The irresponsible use of social media is having a detrimental effect on people's mental health. This feeds into what Senator Butler has spoken about. I would like to mention the case of a young man in the entertainment business who is a native of County Cavan. Attacks on social media are having horrendous effects on his attempts to establish himself in the entertainment field, as well as on his mental health and that of his family. I submitted a request for a Commencement debate on this issue to the Cathaoirleach's office this morning. I hope the Cathaoirleach will be able to see fit to allow such a debate to take place some day next week. I would like the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to come to the House to discuss this issue. I ask the Acting Leader to invite the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to come to the House for a wider debate on the responsible use of social media in this country. I know it is not easy, but all necessary steps must be taken to curtail this type of abuse.
I join other Senators in condemning the vandalism of the war memorial by cowards whom I would not like to see on the front line of any army. The destruction they have caused is unbelievable.
I call for a debate on tourism. It would be timely for us to consider how Brexit will affect the tourism trade. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport should come to the House at some stage in the not too distant future to set out his plans and proposals, and those of Tourism Ireland, for furthering the tourism product throughout the country.
Senator Colm Burke mentioned that an additional 13,000 people are working in the health service now. Some €16 billion is now being spent on health. There is no doubt that never before has more money been put into the health service.We must get better value for the bucks that we put in. It is in everybody's interest, and it behoves all of us, to make sure that we get better value. We should have a debate on the many aspects of the health service where we could, and should, get better value for the vast amount we are putting into it.
I welcome the decision by the new Minister for Education and Skills to review the removal of history as a core subject at junior certificate level. The House unanimously passed a Private Members' motion, that I tabled, which called on the Government at that time to examine and reconsider the decision to remove history as a core subject. In 2013 or 2013 I tabled a similar motion in this House when the idea was first mooted. It is important that every young person in this country understands history because unless we understand the past, we cannot plan properly for the future.
Let us imagine a generation who would not understand the Votáil 100, which we are celebrating this year, and the significance of voting rights 100 years ago. Similarly, let us imagine a future generation not knowing much about the Easter Rising in 1916, the centenary commemorations of same, which we are all engaging in now, the First World War - we celebrated Armistice Day last Sunday week - and the Second World War. It would be a travesty if young Irish people were not in a position to understand the implications of these events or how those significant events shaped the present day country and world. Ireland has always had a great sense of history. As a society and a nation, we have always had a great understanding of history. We, as a nation, have learned from history and I like to think this will define us as a nation going forward. The newly announced review is welcome. I sincerely hope that history will resume being a core subject, and not just at the junior certificate level but throughout the entire education system.
I thank the 18 Senators for raising a range of important issues. I shall commence by responding to the second issue raised by the Leader of the Opposition. I refer to the disgraceful vandalism last night of the Haunting Soldier statue on St. Stephen's Green. I am delighted to report that Office of Public Works, OPW, staff were out first thing this morning and the paint has been removed.
The statue has been returned to its sombre self. I appreciate the comments made by the seven Senators who raised the issue.
I take into account what Senator Ó Donnghaile said about the great Harry Leslie Smith, of whom I am a massive fan. The latter's politics are not necessarily my own but I admire his spirit and ability to fight, particularly for the rights of refugees. I fully agree with Senator Mac Lochlainn's comments on direct provision centres. The approach by our Government and previous Governments to dealing with refugees in this country is a disgrace.
I say that as a Government representative here this afternoon. It is something that I task the Minister and the junior Minister in the Department with every day. We need to learn from this, particularly as we are an emigrant nation because 150 years ago, many thousands of Irish people were refugees in America, Australia and beyond.
Senator Conway raised the review will be carried out on again making history a core subject for the junior certificate. History is particularly pertinent to the many remarks made about the devastating vandalism done to the statue of the Haunting Soldier. I dare say that if the people who carried that act of vandalism had listened a little harder during their history classes in school they might have known that their ignorant and vicious actions have no place in a modern and progressive republic where we tolerate all backgrounds. I must correct my dear friend, Senator Conway, because he mentioned that we celebrated the armistice last week. We very much did not celebrate.
We commemorated the armistice because there is nothing to celebrate about a conflict where millions of men, who were really boys, went to war and met their end, including two of my granduncles. The body of one of my granduncles is lying somewhere in a damp field in Belgium and will never be returned to his wife, children or his sister, who is my granny.
Regarding Senator Ardagh's comments, the last time that I had the honour of being Acting Leader we discussed the John Player site located on the South Circular Road. I will raise the matter with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I encourage the Senator to write to the CEO of the Land Development Agency to see if she can engage with him directly on this issue.
I welcome her warm words for Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane. I join her in thanking them for their service to Irish football and I am sure everyone who has enjoyed the sport feels the same. I had a wonderful experience in France a two summers ago, as did a number of other Senators. I wish Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane well and I wish the FAI well in choosing their replacements. I am sure that there is a number of people here who think they are good enough to apply for their jobs but they think they are good enough for every job.
Senator Humphreys raised the issue of housing. Every single vehicle available to the Government to alleviate the problem is being taken. It is not just about the response to social housing needs, affordable housing needs or the role of the private sector. Everything has to be taken into account to address the issue. Every issue is being taken on by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and his Ministers of State, Deputies English and Phelan, in this regard.
Last weekend, the Taoiseach said that the three Government's key aims relate to Brexit, the health system and the housing system, which it is working on. This also relates to the range of healthcare issues raised by Senators Freeman, Ó Ríordáin, Butler and Colm Burke. Senators Freeman and Ó Ríordáin might consider tabling the issue of Scoil Chiaráin in Donnycarney as a Commencement matter next week. I will request that the Minister for Health come to the House to take statements on the response to mental health issues in general, as Senator Butler mentioned. Last year's mental healthcare budget was considerably increased when compared with the previous year. I will ensure that mental healthcare and access to medicines, as raised by Senator Colm Burke, will also form part of the debate.
Senator Humphreys asked whether Operation Freeflow could be undertaken in city centres during the festive period. I support his idea and I shall raise it with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
Senator Gallagher mentioned the plight of the school secretary. It is a pertinent issue to raise and it is dear to his heart. I will call on the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to come to the House to take statements.
Senator Craughwell made timely and pertinent remarks about the attack on The Haunting Soldier statue. In addition, he mentioned the report on subsidiarity that was compiled by the First Vice-President of the European Commission, Mr. Timmermans. The Senator did the Government an injustice in his comments on the Government's approach to local government because it has been proactive. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy John Paul Phelan, has been particularly proactive in the past number of months in this area. I have had the honour of serving on a county council for the seven years, as well as on the Committee of the Regions for two years, and I fully appreciate the need for a realistic approach to subsidiarity. However, I will bring the report to the Minister's attention and ask him to come to the House to take statements on the matter, as well as to respond to the comments made by Senator Lombard on the Local Government Bill 2018. He believes that the legislation will slow things down and thus have an impact on the boundaries of Cork City Council and Cork County Council.
Senator Davitt sought a debate on rural transport issues with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport so I will invite the Minister to a debate. I will not necessarily use some of the language that the Senator used but the issue deserves attention and discussion in this House.
Senator McFadden raised the issue of drones. As she will be aware, the regulatory body responsible for drones and the enforcement of regulations is the Irish Aviation Authority, which comes under the remit of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. I have no doubt that the agency will be more than willing to take into account her comments and discuss her concerns regarding the barracks in Athlone.
Senator Boyhan mentioned waiting lists and healthcare issues. I have given a commitment to invite the Minister for Health to the House for statements and I will add both topics to that debate. I will request that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government contact the Senator directly regarding the legislative timeframe for the Land Development Agency. Like Senator Ardagh, he might like to engage with the agency, to which a CEO has been appointed. He can engage directly with the agency on the issues he raised.
Senator Wilson made thoughtful and pertinent remarks regarding the debate on social media. We, in the body politic, know as well as anyone the detrimental effects that abuse via social media can have. I have become quite a fan of the "Mute" button on Twitter.If anyone does not know why, he or she can take a look through my timeline. There is not a night where I do not go home an it is my wife or my sister asking whether I am okay. I do not know why they are asking this because it turns out some faceless troll behind an anonymous timeline has been attacking my appearance, my beliefs or the amount of hair gel I use. It is something that hits me hard when they bring that issue up. We have to realise that is the level of intelligence one is dealing with in this area. There is a need to have a thorough debate on this. I will call on the new Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Deputy Bruton, to come to the House as soon as possible to debate this.
Finally, I agree with Senator Paddy Burke's call for a debate on tourism. I will ask the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Brendan Griffin, to come to the House. The Government has acted in two ways in this area. First, it has increased funding both for Bord Fáilte and Tourism Ireland as a direct response to Brexit. Unfortunately, while overall tourism numbers are up, numbers from the UK have reduced in recent years. I spent my holidays in west Cork last summer and when the shopkeeper said that new tourists coming from America and Canada was brilliant, but tourists who travel from the UK in their cars spend the most in the shops and supermarkets and probably add a lot more to the local economy which is vitally important. Second, the third section of the withdrawal agreement, which we will debate this afternoon, deals with Irish-specific issues such as cross-Border co-operation and a range of areas but in particular, how Tourism Ireland will be protected. The ability through the Good Friday Agreement for the island of Ireland, as a whole, to be marketed as a tourism destination will be maintained as long as that withdrawal agreement and the related political framework makes its way through both the European and British legislative systems and is approved before 29 March 2019. We will play our part in that debate this afternoon and I look forward to contributing to it.