Wednesday, 3 April 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Private Members' business, Public Authorities and Utility Undertakings (Contract Preparation and Award Criteria) Bill 2019 - Second Stage, to be taken at 12.45 p.m., with the time allocated for this debate not to exceed two hours; No. 2, Aircraft Noise (Dublin Airport) Regulations Bill 2018 - Second Stage, to be taken at 2.45 p.m. and to adjourn at 4 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and other Senators not to exceed five minutes; No. 3, ráitis maidir le forbairtí i dtaobh na Gaeilge - an staid reatha, statements on developments regarding the Irish language - current status, to be taken at 4 p.m. and to conclude no later than 5.15 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 no fewer than five minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 4, Land and Conveyance Law Reform (Amendment) Bill 2019 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 5.15 p.m.
I am neither the leader nor the deputy leader of my party but I am here at least and that is the main point.
I thank the Leader for outlining the Order of Business. In terms of Brexit, we could talk about it every day. I am glad to see the Leader - like myself - is in such form. With Brexit, every day and every hour brings a new version of what may happen.
Yesterday was a little unusual in that there was a very long Cabinet meeting followed by an extending of the hand of friendship, or whatever it is, to Jeremy Corbyn to see what can happen in terms of Brexit. I still hope there will not be a Brexit but, hopefully, at least there may be a softer Brexit than might otherwise have been anticipated by the hard Brexiteers. We need to be cognisant of the fact that it is only next week, next Thursday, it all may go wrong. If it does not, the European Council will be meeting this day next week, 10 April, so time is really pushing on. In fairness, the Government probably needs to let us know there are some plans in place just in case there is a no-deal. I know people do not want to scaremonger and that we do not want a hard border but failing to plan is not necessarily the greatest of strategies either.
I want to raise a few other points on which we might need a debate at some point. A big row broke out about school patronage in recent days. We know there is a demand for non-denominational or Educate Together type schools, which I know are not exactly the same but, equally, the process of managing the transition of any school, which is currently a faith-based school, into a non-denominational or interdenominational school needs to be handled very sensitively. The parents of the pupils attending such schools will have sent them there with an expectation of a particular type of education.
The way that transition is handled needs to be done very sensitively. Clearly, 90% plus of primary schools are in the patronage of Catholic schools, albeit the parents of many of the pupils in those schools would not necessarily regard them as being Catholics or certainly practising Catholics. The transition needs to be managed very carefully in terms of the way it is processed, whether it be that the junior infants come in under a different ethos and are taken by the existing teachers or new teachers come in to take the junior infants and other teachers transition to other schools. That is a debate that will need to happen.People sent their children there with the expectation of faith formation and with the expectation of Christmas and Easter holidays, St. Brigid's Day and St. Patrick's Day and other religious types of festivals. To be told that it will all be scrapped tomorrow or next year is not the way to go. I do not believe it is good for those who want non-denominational schools or for those who look for faith schools. It is an important point and we should have the new Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to the Chamber to discuss that topic sooner rather than later.
I attended the recent T.K. Whitaker lecture at the Central Bank on the future of money and cash payments and so on. I believe the ATM taken out of a wall last night in the Border region was the 11th in recent times. Four were taken in the Republic of Ireland and seven in Northern Ireland in the past year. I am not saying that we should give in to these kind of people but we need to look at how we deal with cash and with plastic money over time. We need to look at how we bring people who are not very comfortable with banks, for lots of obvious reasons, into a system of using debit cards and being able to handle and manage plastic transactions. We may not like banks but they are required in a modern economy. Payment systems are certainly required. The idea of everybody collecting their pension in cash-----
I am nearly finished. The point is that people can use debit cards and plastic to tap and they do not have to physically get cash out from the ATM in the wall anymore. We need to have a look at the future of money, and equally at ATM security in the shorter run.
If the Cathaoirleach will indulge me I have one more brief point. An important report has been published inThe Economic and Social Reviewon the rent trap that is swallowing half of the working income of some couples. Childcare costs are up to one fifth of their costs and people are not able to save for deposits. Home ownership is something that many people in this country have aspired to and we really need to look at how people are being trapped in that window where they can barely survive in rental accommodation and are not able to save for a deposit. I thank the Leader and I would appreciate a debate on this issue in the future.
Some of the stuff we heard on RTÉ this morning was a bit hair-raising for parents, and it was pessimistic for the process if it is going to continue like that.
I also agree with the Senator on the issue of ATMs. If it is possible to insert dye destruction devices into briefcases for couriers carrying money, which contaminates the money, I cannot understand why it cannot be done in ATMs. I do not believe that we have to abandon the use of the machines because they are vulnerable.
I am aware that Brexit is a moving target at the moment but I would ask the Leader to arrange, at the earliest possible stage, for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, or the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, to come to the House to explain what is happening between the Irish and French Governments. I am concerned that President Macron might be putting the arm on the Irish and might link French "solidarity" with concessions on taxation. I would like an assurance that this is not happening and has not been attempted. President Macron is being very aggressive about a no-deal Brexit and all the rest of it. He has been laying down very hard lines for the British withdrawal process. At the same time, we only have to go back to President Sarkozy to remember the French taking advantage of our financial crisis-----
-----to demand movement on this area. I seek clarification and reassurance that this is not happening now.
In today's newspapers there is an account of a Fáilte Ireland spokesperson saying that we need a 1,000-bed hotel in Dublin for conferences and that we are missing out because the city does not have a mega hotel of that kind. I am sure that is correct but I wish to make a wider point. Will the Leader consider asking the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to the House? Our Dublin skyline is festooned with cranes, which appear to be building offices, hotels and student accommodation. I am sure that the student accommodation proliferation is good for those students who can afford it and it is good for Ireland as an international education hub, but it is tax driven. It is strange that we have all of those cranes, with each crane probably representing a couple of hundred building workers working on those projects, and yet we are not making significant progress on housing for people in the city centre. If tax-driven schemes give rise to student accommodation, I believe we now need a very different approach to urban living and the provision of accommodation in urban areas, taking into account proposals such as the Vienna model for public housing.
In the course of a debate last night on sentencing policy guidelines - I very much welcome that this will come to a conclusion very soon - the Thornton Hall site was mentioned. In that context, I pointed out that as part of that project the Department of Justice and Equality had sold some land at Shanganagh Castle to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. The land was for social and affordable housing but the lands have lain empty for 14 years. Now there is a row between that council and the Land Development Agency. Somebody needs to get people to talk or to crack heads together. If that is the record - 14 years lying vacant - and now there is a row about who should develop them, then we have a real problem on our hands.
In today's newspapers there is an account of a Fáilte Ireland spokesperson saying that we need a 1,000 bed hotel in Dublin for conferences, and that we are missing out because the city does not have a mega hotel of that kind. I am sure this is correct, but I want to make a wider point. I ask the Leader to consider asking the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Murphy, into the House. The Dublin skyline is currently festooned with cranes. The appear to be building offices, hotels and student accommodation. The student accommodation proliferation is good, I am sure, for those students who can afford it. It is also good for Ireland as an international education hub. It is, however, tax driven. It is strange that all of those cranes are working on all of those projects and every crane probably represents a couple of hundred workers working on those projects, yet we are not making significant progress on housing for people in the city centre. If tax-driven schemes give rise to student accommodation I believe that we really need a very different approach to urban living and the provision of accommodation in urban areas, taking into account proposals such as the Vienna model for public housing. We mentioned this in the course of a debate last night on the sentencing policy guidelines - - and which , I very much welcome that this will come to a conclusion very soon.
I welcome the long-awaited move towards equality of farm payments in a vote earlier this week on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, post-2020 that took place in the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.
The system of farm payments has been based on historical entitlements, which has served to preserve inequality. It means that some farmers received multiples more per hectare than others. There are still farmers in Ireland receiving as little as €150 per hectare in basic payment, while others are getting right up to €700 per hectare. This vote means that the disparity will be lessened and calls for full convergence of payments by 2026. There is a long way to go towards full convergence and full equality, but this is a start and will benefit those on the lowest payments. For some people this could be the difference between surviving as farmers or not.
The only way to sustain family farms is for them to have a decent basic payment. Every farmer should be brought up to the national average basic payment which is €250 per hectare. A Sinn Féin MEP, Matt Carthy, has supported an upper limit of €60,000 for basic payments, with farmers having the option of topping up their payments through participation in environmental schemes. This would allow for front-loaded payments that would offer additional support proportionally for smaller and medium sized farms. It is absolutely vital that there is a separate environmental scheme available, such as GLAS, in the next round of the CAP. Any attempts to incorporate GLAS into the basic payment will lead to a severe reduction in income for farmers and must be resisted. In this week's vote, Fine Gael's political group significantly weakened this ambition so that the direct payments will be capped at €100,000, with loopholes that will allow payments even above this limit.
It is near the end of this parliamentary term and the implementation of the 2020-2027 programme will fall to the Parliament to be elected in May. It is vital that Ireland is represented by progressive MEPs who will demand fairness and equality for our farmers. The challenge now rests with the Government to protect the family farm and the agricultural sector, as more autonomy will be given to member states in the application of the new CAP.
This is a real opportunity for Ireland to right the wrongs of the past and to right the wrongs of the reference years and the entitlements that had been given that led to such inequalities for farmers, and especially for farmers in the west of Ireland and on marginalised land.
-----which was recently found to have been involved in a form of hazing. As far as I know, it was pretty mild but hazing is a very noxious practice. An attempt is now being made to suppress the college newspaper, The University Times, which published a report on same. It is shocking that a university body would try to stamp on freedom of expression in this way. Although I am a Knight of the Campanile myself, I strongly resist these motions and hope they will not take place.
The second matter I wish to raise is a rather sad one. I had a communication today from a man who seems to be a remarkable and good father to his two children, aged three and five. They were both perfectly normal, well developing children until the age of two. Suddenly they started to deteriorate and it turns out that they have a very rare disease called metachromatic leukodystrophy. They are both in a difficult situation but one has had treatment and may be stabilised. In Ireland we only test for eight rare disorders as opposed to the 35 recommended by the American Food and Drug Administration, FDA. In one year, the Italians have increased the number of rare conditions tested for from four to 40. This is an area in which we need to improve. We must align ourselves with the test programmes being conducted in Italy. We must increase the number of conditions for which we test because it is often significantly cheaper to test and treat rather than waiting until a chronic situation develops. I appeal to the Government to move in this direction and to increase to 40 the number of disorders for which we test and treat. That is the compassionate response. The father to whom I referred talked with so much passion about the fact that had this test been done and had his children been diagnosed early, they would now be in a much better condition. Although his situation is tragic, he felt the need to speak out on behalf of other parents to prevent them from being involved in a similar horrible situation.
I agree with Senator Norris. We all received the email to which Senator Norris referred and anyone who read it could not fail to be moved by the sentiments contained therein. Time is of the essence and it is very important that children are tested. The second child has been stabilised because he was tested earlier. It is a worthwhile issue for the Minister to consider.
I wish to discuss disability services in this country. I live in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 8 where there are serious budget issues in the context of disability services. I am trying to fight for a number of people at the moment, including a patient in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire who is about to be discharged. If a service is not put in place for him, he will end up in Tullamore general hospital. I do not like the term "bed blocker" but that is exactly what he will be if he does not get the service he needs. An organisation is willing to put a service in place and has prepared a business plan for that but there is no funding available. In another case, a lady needs a house. A house is available and rent is being paid on it but there is no funding available for staff. Will the Leader invite the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, to come to the House to discuss disability services in general and those in CHO 8 in particular?
It is now 19 days since the horrific massacre in New Zealand. I praise the manner in which the Prime Minister of that country, Ms Jacinda Ardern, handled the aftermath of the Christchurch mass shooting. I know that other Senators have spoken about this recently but events could easily have been mismanaged by someone with a lot less tact or compassion. Given that my sister lives in New Zealand, I am glad that the Prime Minister managed the crisis so gracefully and instigated change so swiftly. She changed the gun laws in that country within six days of the atrocity. We have a lot to learn from that. I ask that the Committee on Procedure and Privileges would consider inviting Ms Ardern to address the Houses of the Oireachtas because we have a lot to learn from her.
I wish to make brief mention of the coastguard service. Last year my party colleague Deputy Robert Troy introduced a Bill which would establish an Irish coastguard authority and designate said body as the principal response agency to engage in the management and co-ordination of responses to major emergency events within the State. The Bill would create a statutory Irish coastguard authority, and in doing so, acknowledge the stellar work the coastguard already does and ensure that it would continue to be able to do so. Since the introduction of that Bill, the coastguard has banned volunteers from using blue lights and sirens on vehicles while travelling to incidents. Clearly this situation needs to be rectified and proper training for volunteers provided. Staff and volunteers were informed that drivers are no longer permitted to use blue lights and sirens while driving on public roads but can use them when parked, which seems ludicrous. This undermines the valuable role of the coastguard. A second-rate emergency response service is not in the public interest. A plan must be put in place immediately to roll out emergency driver training for coastguard volunteers to restore their full use of emergency lights and sirens. Will the Leader consider organising a debate in the House on this issue and on the emergency services more generally?
I congratulate the Government representatives in this and the Lower House on supporting the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2017 last week. There was much contention surrounding the legislation, much discussion and a lot of concern among those stakeholders directly affected. Their concerns and fears are ones for which I have both understanding and great sympathy. Their fears for the future of their businesses, the viability of the industry and the welfare of fishermen and their families are genuine and real. However, the Bill is not about an added threat. It is about fairness and, most of all, about reciprocal arrangements. It is about ensuring an environment that is conducive to a shared future for the northern and southern fishing fleets.
I had a conversation on Monday morning last with Mr. Alan McCulla, the CEO of Sea Source in Kilkeel. Sea Source is a fishermen's co-operative and is a member of the Anglo North Irish Fish Producers Organisation, ANIFPO. While Mr. McCulla welcomed the progression of the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, he made a number of points which deserve mention in this House. He first made the point that he was disappointed that the trigger for action was the impounding of two Northern Irish vessels in Dundalk Bay. He said that it was a pity that it took this highly visible demonstration to mobilise action. He spoke to me from his office at the harbour in Kilkeel where he could see a significant number of Irish-registered fishing vessels. Those vessels presented no threat to or issue for him. He expressed concern about comments made last week that Northern Ireland vessels were sailing under flags of convenience. He said that there is an argument to be made that, in some quarters, this was a question of people in glass houses throwing stones. Mr. McCulla reassured me that any notion of an armada of fishing vessels heading into Irish waters was ridiculous. The suggestion that these vessels would detrimentally impact the industry, environment, ecology or economy in any way was unfounded and the contrary was the case. Mr. McCulla made the point that the northern and southern fishing industries needed to work better together. He argued that a stronger working relationship would support and safeguard the entire fleet, wherever that may be on the island. He spoke about ensuring a sustainable, profitable and viable industry for all. Even though the incident in Dundalk Bay appeared to have political undertones, it was dealt with swiftly and the subsequent actions by the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Government must be commended.Mr. McCulla felt strongly that in light of the current debate, it would be useful to propose that the Government should initiate a joint discussion forum to further these relationships, build bridges and ensure that we have a strong, resilient, all-island industry, ultimately avoiding a similar contentious incident happening in future.
Yesterday, we received a great presentation from Irish Rail in Buswells. It has great plans and I compliment the CEO, Jim Meade, for the wonderful presentation. There will be an investment of approximately €2 billion in Irish Rail over the next years and it wants the Government to bring forward some of that investment, which would make sense. He informed us that all of the hybrid trains that are currently used will be used on the long services, such as from Cork, Galway, Sligo, Westport and Ballina. He said that the new trains which are being purchased will all be electric and will be used on shorter routes, such as to Maynooth, Drogheda, Dún Laoghaire and such. This makes sense and it is a fabulous plan. I ask the Leader for a debate on Irish Rail's plans. I put it to Mr. Meade that we need more people working in customer service on trains and platforms. Quite a number of people use wheelchairs and such, and they are at a disadvantage when large numbers of passengers use the service. There are quite a number of complaints. He is willing to address many of those issues. Some of the train stations will become ticket-only and no staff will work on those platforms. I ask for more investment in this area by Irish Rail and for better customer service on trains and platforms. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on Irish Rail's plans.
I begin by mentioning that there are 92 patients on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick. This is a new national record. I will not repeat all the points I made last week again but ask for an urgent debate as conditions continue to worsen weekly.
I raise the issue of school patronage. It will not surprise the Leader to know that I have a different take on it to the conservative stance taken by my colleague, Senator Horkan, from Fianna Fáil. St. Sylvester's infant school in Malahide has become the third Catholic school in north Dublin to write to parents, warning them not to vote to change from a Catholic school to a secular school. These letters, which were ordered by the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, contain a number of unsubstantiated claims, such as: stating that the standard of education will drop; teachers' contracts will be under threat; there will no longer be school uniforms; children's safety will be compromised on school tours; and grandparents will no longer be allowed to be celebrated. It is utter nonsense. These letters represent nothing more than scaremongering tactics by a powerful vested interest.
The Department of Education and Skills should demand an explanation from each of the three schools and from the archdiocese. It is unacceptable that such an important consultation process is being manipulated and influenced by a body with a powerful ideology. The reality is that in north Dublin, 97% of school places are in schools with a religious ethos. The Department has discovered through consultation that there is demand in the area to divest patronage and move to a secular model. We must work towards ending the patronage system completely. It is time that the State finally took responsibility for running and delivering an education system for all of its citizens through a secular medium, rather than simply outsourcing its responsibility to private patronage bodies. As a republican, I believe in the separation of church and State. It is fundamentally wrong to separate children at the age of five on the basis of religion.
An RTÉ reporter in our part of the world, Pat McAuliffe, died in the last few days. He was a very well-known sports journalist. I met him several times at Cork City matches over the years. He is an awful loss not only to the sporting world but to Cork's sporting community. I register my deepest sympathies to his family and the Cork community. Pat was a lovely, jolly man. Every time one met him, he had a kind word. He is an awful loss to us in that part of the world.
This week is National Tree Week. We need to start talking about it. We published a comprehensive report regarding climate change last week. We included nearly 40 recommendations in a comprehensive, ten chapter, all-of-Government report, and most parties bought into the concept behind it. It is important that we acknowledge that this week is a week where we try to promote the planting of trees and people getting involved in that. The turn of the millennium was 19 years ago. We put a project in place where we planted a tree for every person in the State. Perhaps 20 years on, we need to look at another similar project, with the State getting behind a proposal of planting a tree for every person in the State in 2020. Perhaps the Seanad could lead on this issue. We could get the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine into the House to have a debate on the proposal to plant a tree for every person in the State. It would take into consideration so much of what has changed in the world. Climate change is a significant issue. Perhaps the State and local authorities need to be the driver for growing trees. We will have a 12-month period to plan it. It is sustainable. The millennium forest is now 19 years old and was a very positive step. Let us push forward and have another drive to ensure that we can get another 4 million trees planted by the State next year to celebrate our commitment to climate change and what we need to do.
I beg the indulgence of the Cathaoirleach to mark the passing of our political colleague, Councillor Michael "Stroke" Fahy from Ardrahan. He was a Fianna Fáil candidate in the Gort-Kinvara electoral area. Our colleague, Senator Boyhan, visited him in hospital quite recently. He was a wonderful public representative who represented the area for four decades. His name came up many times over the last years. I pay deep sympathy to his family on the sad and very sudden death of a great public representative and friend to all of us in the Seanad.
The developing situation in Westminster is a very moving subject. This last stand by Prime Minister May might work, calling on the leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, and the Labour Party, to act in the national interest, as Fianna Fáil is doing in the confidence and supply agreement to ensure that we have a Government here. The leader of the party gave a commitment because of the Brexit situation. He was not going to precipitate a general election. It is a good example to our colleagues in Westminster, to show how a democratic state can operate in a crisis. It is vital that, on 12 April, Britain exits the European Union in an orderly way. That is the most that we can hope for at this point. It will then enter into meaningful negotiations regarding the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, with deep concern about the Border, Republic of Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. That is the way forward. I am hopeful that the national interest will be taken on board. They can deal politically with the fallout from that. If the Prime Minister gets that deal signed, sealed and delivered through the House of Commons before 12 April, then it can move on in a positive and orderly manner. Talking about referendums and such at this point is not practical. There is a way out. The Brexiteers and non-Brexiteers may unite in the national interest to return sanity to the House of Commons and agree to this Brexit deal which has been negotiated by the European Union and United Kingdom in good faith and should be ratified by the Westminster Parliament.
I fully support the call by my colleague, Senator Paddy Burke, for a debate on the strategy for our railway services. It is timely that we would have that debate now. As Senator Lombard pointed out, last week we launched our climate action report after seven months of hearing witnesses and deliberations. It will chart our way forward to decarbonise our economy. A key issue in that is decarbonising transport, and without a doubt, railways have a big part to play in it. For a considerable period of time, when there was no money in the country owing to our economic situation and our banking situation, which was about a 15-year period, there was no proper investment into railways. Now, as we are beginning to invest in rolling stock in the lines and in the engines and carriages, we want to make sure that they are investing green, they are being supported in doing so and that it is part of the solution in reducing our carbon emissions.
We also need to address other issues with our railways, particularly with journey times, especially into the west and into Mayo so that there would be shorter journey times, more services to make it more practical for people to use and an improvement in capacity because often there is not enough space for passengers on trains. It is becoming chronic at certain times of the week and that really is not acceptable. Our investment in railways also ties into our economic growth and development. I mention the issue of West on Track, which would see a rail line going up pretty much along the western seaboard or charting a path along what we call the Atlantic economic corridor, which is obviously a notion or a proposition. To back it up we need to see this rail infrastructure which would not just take passenger services but freight services as well. I would like to see further development of the freight service within Ballina, which is the second largest freight yard in the country. It needs upgrading and new facilities and it has great potential to take some of our freight off the road. It is a very interesting topic and it is very timely. As a priority of business for this House, it is a good opportunity for us to discuss the importance of and the need to invest in our railways in this House in order to see some results from it.
I want to talk about the local property tax. In the media today, both in broadcast and in print, there has been much discussion about the Government's expected announcement today to defer the local property tax for another 12 months. That is clearly a political decision with political consequences but it defers the real issue that we need to debate in both Houses, namely, how we will fund local government in a reasonable, fair and sustainable way. It is unacceptable that blocks of people are crippled with the property tax without the capacity to pay, and one of the flaws which everyone agrees on across the Houses, is that the system is unfair and that needs to be put right. I am advised that there is a report on the desk of the Minister for Finance since November on this local property tax. It is disappointing that this report has not been fully published but let us not pre-empt the whole day yet and see what comes out of the decision of the Government.
I am calling for a debate in this House because realistically, we need to have a full, fair and comprehensive debate on how we will fund local government and services. Members will remember the great fanfare at the launch of the local property tax. We were told this was an additional source of funding, not a substitute source of funding for the central funding of local government. It was marketed on television, radio and leaflets as bringing new community facilities, new swimming pools, new parks and new public amenities and that has not happened. Chief executives of the 41 local authorities will tell us that the reality was that the central government allocation was dropped and substituted by the take of the local property tax and there is an unfair balance across the country. I am not suggesting for one moment that local authorities that are weaker and do not have the revenue resources should be crippled either. They need to be supported by central government but for those who collect and have money, it should be kept locally and spent locally and decisions about that local funding should be made by councillors. I am calling for a debate on the local property tax.
I would like to be associated with my colleague, Senator Leyden, in expressing sympathy for Councillor Michael Fahy. I knew him well, as everyone did here, including the Cathaoirleach who knew him very well. He always spoke very highly and fondly of the Cathaoirleach and of the Cathaoirleach's support for him. He was a character to say the least and local government had many characters. We will never see his like again. We will never see men and women who served for 30 and 40 years in local government because they cannot do it and they do not have the support to do it. That also feeds into this issue of local government reform and support for councillors and people who wish to carry out that noble and honourable profession of being a public representative in a local council.
It was great for the west of Ireland and it was great to see after 18 years that something is coming back. I will say that when Mayo last won division 1 of the league, Roscommon won the Connacht Championship so maybe it will be a good year for Roscommon as well.
The west is best and that is the way it should be. I agree that we need to have a debate on railways and on the speed of same. Where I live in Boyle in Roscommon, it takes two and a half hours to get to Dublin. I had a Commencement matter last week to the effect that if we want to have an agreed Ireland, there must be a one hour train journey between Dublin and Belfast. It was mentioned at a breakfast in Galway last Saturday by the head of the Galway Chamber of Commerce that we really should be looking at high speed railways between all our major cities, because if one could get on a train in Galway, Sligo or Castlebar and be in Dublin in an hour it would do an awful lot towards getting the economy to the west coast, but that is happening. Great, exciting things are happening in the west and in the next four or five years that will be seen. Project Ireland 2040 has been great in that respect.
I mentioned President Macron coming here and I said that France will never abandon Ireland or the Irish people. Tomorrow we have Chancellor Angela Merkel coming to see for herself what the situation is. We are at one with Europe but Theresa May sitting down with Jeremy Corbyn is good and I hope that we will have a deal without a crash out in the next few days. As Senator Leyden rightly said, Friday week is the deadline. Great hurt has been caused by Brexit in the last three years and I hope there will be a good deal. Whatever happens we will have to repair that hurt in the north, the south, the east and the west. We can do that as politicians, standing together with our colleagues in the North and in the east.
Last night in Castleblayney, an ATM was robbed from the AIB on the main street. This is the third ATM to be stolen in the locality in the past three months. One was stolen in Ballybay prior to that and one was stolen in Kingscourt in County Cavan prior to that. To my mind, this clearly illustrates that we do not have enough gardaí on patrol to prevent crimes such as this happening in the first place. It must be considered that in County Monaghan for example, a Border county that straggles three northern counties, namely, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Armagh, there are only two marked patrol cars covering the entire county for most nights during the week. This crime clearly illustrates that these criminals are brazen enough to drive in with a jeep and a trailer attached with a digger on the back, park up, drive the digger off, remove the ATM and drive off into the dark of night in the direction of the Border, never to be seen again. If it clearly shows that we do not have enough gardaí to prevent crimes such as this happening in the first place, it also raises the question of whether we have enough gardaí to investigate crimes such as this thereafter.I am gravely concerned about this matter, especially when I understand that no overtime is available for the investigation of such crimes in the Border counties. This matter clearly illustrates that we have a serious problem. I have preached here for long enough that we are totally exposed in the Border counties and it is time that the Government gave us the resources that we need.
The banks also need to step up to the plate as they have a responsibility. I understand that there is no tracking device attached to any of these ATMs. One would also question why such large amounts of money are lodged overnight in banks in towns like Castleblayney and Ballybay in the first place. I ask that the Minister for Justice and Equality requests of the banks that they step up to the plate and play their part in security. Today, the main street of Castleblayney is cordoned off so businesses are suffering because nobody is allowed to enter the town. There is also an ongoing issue with the market house in Castleblayney and part of the town is cordoned off on an ongoing basis. We need help in the Border counties. We need extra resources, especially with Brexit on our doorstep at the moment. I ask the Government to please keep these matters in consideration going forward.
Last night I got a telephone call from somebody I dearly love who told me that today she will be homeless by lunch hour and her property will be taken from her by a bank. It deeply disturbs me the way things are going on. This woman is in her 60s. I lost my house in my 30s and while it is possible to recover when one is in one's 30s, it is totally impossible to do so in one's 60s. The heartbreaking thing behind this story is that this woman has been through several court cases. There was not a word, letter or telephone call for almost seven years but yesterday, she received a telephone call to say her case would be before the High Court today and she would be out of her home within six months. She has nowhere to go. I am mindful of the woman in a film I saw some years ago who had her entire life in a group of bags or a shopping trolley and that was it. That is all there was. l asked myself what had gone wrong and there are no simple answers. The house was repeatedly sold from one lending agency to another. I assume that by the time the house was eventually purchased by the people who are now justifiably recovering their asset - and I am not for one moment complaining about that - they probably bought it for 10 cent in the euro. That is the problem. If somebody said it to me that I could have bought the house for 10 cent in the euro then I would have bought it and would have seen to it that the person was not thrown out on the street. There are families all over this country who would do the same thing, rather than see somebody they love suffer. I am totally baffled that we can sit idly by and allow these major multinationals come in here and buy up properties at 10 cent or 20 cent in the euro yet evict Irish citizens.
I was president of the Teachers Union of Ireland when we cut the pay of our members by up to 30% and we did so to save this country. While none of us liked the measure, and people in this House took similar cuts, we did it because the country needed it. Can we not now in some way take control? Can we set up a housing agency that will be offered these houses at 10 cent or 20 cent in the euro? Can we ensure that when somebody is about to be chucked out on the street that the house is sold to that agency, which allows the person to continue to live in the property? I am talking about a woman in her 60s. I am sick of listening to calls for debates on homelessness. I am sick of listening to the Minister for House, Planning and Local Government being lashed verbally. There is no simple answer. Can we have a debate that might consider how to deal with deviant mortgages and people who are about to find themselves on the street? I am heartbroken today for this particular person. I wish I could go, pick her up, take her in my arms and take her away. I do not want her to suffer the pain that she is suffering today. I would do anything to take her pain away. I respect the right of the bank to seize its property but, good God, I respect the woman's right to live out her life in some sort of peace.
I agree with the call made by my colleagues, Senators Paddy Burke and Mulherin. I, too, attended the presentation made by Irish Rail yesterday. I applaud its plans and what it is Irish Rail is striving to achieve by way of the provision of new electrified rolling stock and improvement in journey times. As the two Senators have raised, there are important issues regarding passenger comfort, ease of access and so on. Many smaller stations throughout the country will not be manned in future. The Irish Rail officials told me yesterday that they hope to provide personnel on trains on all lines to help passengers. Obviously the personnel will be expected to assist passengers getting on and off at these unmanned stations. I suggest that the initiative is worked out more properly. I support the call made by the Senators for a debate as it would be timely in regard to everything that Irish Rail is trying to do and hope to do.
I wish to raise another subject matter. It is very good that the British Prime Minister has at long last - and I suppose it was forced on her really - dropped her red lines and now there is hope of progress being made. It is good that there is going to be a cross-party approach. It is the only way they would make progress, seeing that the two parties in the UK had their own difficulties for so long. I hope that the meeting will bear fruit and that progress will be made in the near future.
Today, I rise to raise the matter of ash dieback, which is a disease that has infected the forestry population of Ireland. Ash dieback is a quite a serious disease, particularly in the midlands and a lot of the Ulster region. Let me explain my reason for asking the Leader to raise the issue with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. His Department closed the scheme to tackle the problem in February 2018 and continued to tell people who have been affected by ash dieback that it will open the scheme next month but that been promised for the last year. I ask the Leader to raise the matter with the Minister and ask him to come here to discuss the matter. I have discussed the issue before and Senator Boyhan is well in tune with it. Ash dieback seems to have become a serious issue, particularly in the midlands. As this is National Tree Week, which is an initiative that calls on people to plant trees, forestry is a topical issue at present. A lot of forestry and certainly ash plantations in the midlands have been decimated by ash dieback.
I wish to raise a curious query. There has been a lot of talk, particularly by a Deputy in the area, about a new bridge being built in the town of Newbridge as part of a national plan. I ask the Leader to ask the relevant Minister and then inform me whether there are plans afoot to build a new traffic bridge in Newbridge, as touted by some local Deputies. I would appreciate if the Leader will bring me up to speed on the matter.
I thank the 18 Members of the House who contributed to the Order of Business today. On my behalf I and that of my party, I express sympathies to the family of the late Michael Fahy who died. Senators Leyden and Boyhan very eloquently paid tribute to the man for his longevity of service and his unique role in Irish politics. We send our deepest sympathies to his family and to the Fianna Fáil Party on his sad passing.
I join Senator Lombard in paying tribute to the late Pat McAuliffe who died suddenly on Monday in Cork. In a previous incarnation I had the pleasure of working in RTÉ Radio Cork as a sports reporter with Pat McAuliffe. He was one of the most accommodating and supportive broadcasters to anybody engaged in journalism. His encyclopaedic knowledge of sport was legendary. His gentleness in his interviewing of managers and players after games was exceptional. To his partner, to his brother Matthew, to the RTÉ family and to the sports family in Cork we wend our deepest sympathies on his death.
Senators Horkan, McDowell, Leyden, Feighan and Coghlan raised the issue of Brexit, which is a moving target every day. We all share the sentiment the Senators expressed this morning. We hope the British Parliament in tandem with the British Government arrives at a common-sense decision. There is a joke going around that the British people might see the end of May before the end of April. However, we have to pay tribute to the British Prime Minister at one level for her steadfastness in trying to get a result. I welcome her engagement with Jeremy Corbyn this morning and I hope it will bring results.
I note Senator McDowell's words regarding President Macron and the whole relationship. I do not believe there is a payback for tax realignment and tax policy. The Tánaiste, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs and the Minister for Finance have said it repeatedly. I certainly hope there is not because this is a stand-alone issue. This is about the European project in itself as opposed to tax harmonisation or what individual countries do. However, I would certainly be happy to agree to the Senator's request for a debate on the issue.
I repeat that I hope the DUP will recognise that it has a key role to play. It can bring people with it and it should take leadership given that the people who vote for that party will be dreadfully affected by a hard Brexit. Equally, it is important that we continue, as the Taoiseach has done this week with meetings with President Macron and tomorrow with Chancellor Merkel, to build bridges across the Continent.
Senators Horkan, McDowell and Gavan raised the issue of school patronage. As Senator McDowell said, the issue needs to be handled sensitively and in an intelligent way. The Minister and his Department have not been involved in the letters sent to schools in Malahide. The process outlined by Government has two distinct phases: identification and implementation. That is important because the transfer of patronage is about one issue. In tandem with that, there needs to be proper consultation with the school community on the reconfiguration and the patronage issue. The formal implementation phase has not yet commenced and there is no requirement on the Department until September of next year.
There can be considerable scaremongering and hyperbole on the issue with suggestions about the refusal to celebrate Christmas, Easter or other festivals. Many schools already do that in a non-denominational manner as it stands. It is important to have a calm debate and a process that is informative and that is handled sensitively and carefully. I understand the letters parents received are not based on information from the Department of Education and Skills. I hope that the reconfiguration process around diversity will allow choice for families so that we can have the school communities that people want. I look forward to that happening. We will certainly have that debate again with the Minister in the coming weeks.
Senators Horkan and Gallagher raised the issue of what is happening to ATMs. Senator Horkan made the sensible suggestion that the money could be dyed or decommissioned in some shape or form. While I do not want to get into a particular row with Senator Gallagher, it is a bit rich of him to criticise the Government when his party decimated rural areas. He can do it if he wants, and he can say it again. Fianna Fáil closed Garda stations. It closed the Garda College in Templemore. It cut recruitment.
The Senator ruined his argument with what he just did there again. Even if several squad cars came up to the particular ATM, the road was blocked. It took two minutes and there were 11 of them. Senator Horkan's point is relevant. Technology can assist in the matter of ATMs. As Senator McDowell said, it is about making it easier for people to avoid using cash. Today people use debit or credit cards for everything. Senator Horkan also made the point. That is a debate we can have. However, it is nonsensical for Senator Gallagher to come in here every day and blame the Government for everything. We need to focus on giving security to the people.
As Senators Horkan and McDowell said, we need a debate on the future use of money and how banks can play a role in the provision of ATMs in many parts of the country but also in the way they can work with local communities around the use of money. I would be happy to have that debate in the coming weeks.
Senator Horkan asked for a debate on the ESRI and I would be happy to have that debate, probably after Easter.
Senator McDowell referred to a Fáilte Ireland spokesperson saying that we need a mega hotel in Dublin for conferences. I have not seen the report. His remarks are correct. We need a clear debate on future urban living. I support him in that and we will have the debate in the coming weeks.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue of the vote of European Parliament's Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. As she will be aware, the previous two CAP reforms moved money away from large farm payments to smaller ones. That benefited more people. It is about supporting family farmers, as we have been doing.
Senators Norris and McFadden spoke about the expansion of neonatal screening. We all received an email this morning, and if Members have not read it, they should. It is a very emotional email written by a parent in distress looking for a change. Those of us involved in politics could not fail to be moved by the email and the need for change. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House. I suggest to Senators Norris and McFadden that raising it as a Commencement matter may get an answer quicker.
Senator Swanick raised the issue of the Irish Coast Guard and the blue light. I do not have the information on that, but his points are very relevant and we need to debate it.Senator Marshall's point about the Sea-Fisheries Bill is to be welcomed, as are his engagement and the point he made around joint discussion. A future discussion forum is an eminently sensible suggestion because it is about avoiding contention. I also commend him on his initiative next week and on building bridges in this House.
Senators Paddy Burke, Mulherin, Feighan and Coghlan raised the issue of Irish Rail. The good news is that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, is in the House for a debate on transport tomorrow and Members can have a debate with him on that subject. The Minister will be well able to engage with people on all issues relating to rail. We need to look at the model of delivery of rail services.
Senators Lombard and Mulherin raised National Tree Week and spoke of the need to use forestry to offset greenhouse gas emissions. It is important but urban areas also need trees so we should promote their planting. The Minister came into the House for a debate on forestry following a request from Senator Boyhan and we will invite him back again.
Senator Boyhan raised the very important issue of the local property tax and I do not disagree with many of his comments. The Minister for Finance, who was on "Morning Ireland" and "Newstalk Breakfast" this morning, is anxious to have a real debate on the matter. The Senator made a point about deferral but the Minister has bona fides in respect of this issue. His approach is to keep, but reform, the local property tax and to avoid a sudden increase in bills for people. He wants to ensure valuations are based on a considered measure, rather than a rushed one. Senator Boyhan spoke about money being spent but money is being spent locally, though I take his point that more needs to be done and that it needs to be better explained. The Minister is sending a report to the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, which is welcome. I would be happy for him to come to the House on the matter. It is important that property tax is funded locally and is fair and consistent.
Senator Craughwell raised a very sensitive matter. All of us are anxious for people to remain in their homes and to engage with banks. I hope that a solution is found in the case he mentions. Finally, Senator Davitt raised the issue of ash dieback, which is causing a lot of difficulty. I will ask the Minister to come back to us on that, perhaps for a Commencement matter. The bridge in Newbridge is beyond my remit but I would be happy for the Senator to put a Commencement matter to the House on the subject. I am sure there are many fine Deputies in Kildare who could work with him on a cross-party basis to ensure the bridge is built.
I also wish to be associated with the remarks about, and tributes paid to, the RTÉ journalist, Pat McAuliife who tragically passed away in Cork recently, and to Councillor Michael "Stroke" Fahy from Ardrahan in County Galway, who was a great character and was a candidate for the next local election but died rather suddenly. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha dílse.