Thursday, 11 July 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. a1, motion regarding the 12th report of the Committee of Selection, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 1, motion regarding the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. a1; No. 1a, motion regarding the arrangements for the sitting of the House tomorrow, Friday, 12 July 2019, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 1; No. 2, motion regarding the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 (Specified Bodies) Regulations 2019, back from committee, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 1a; No. 3, motion approving the establishment of a citizens' assembly on gender equality, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 2; No. 3a, CervicalCheck Tribunal Bill 2019 - Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3, with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes; No. 4, Parole Bill 2016 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3a; No. 4a, Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018 - Report Stage, amendments from Dáil Éireann, and Final Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 4.
I will start on quite a sad note in extending my sincerest sympathies, and those of Fianna Fáil, to the family of Brendan Grace. We heard the breaking news about the very popular comedian and singer late last night or early this morning. We extend our sincerest sympathy to his family. We also extend our sympathy to the family of Noel Whelan. Many here will have known him from his political life and the many good campaigns with which he was involved over the years. Both of those families are waking up to big losses this morning. We were touched by the news that broke last night and early this morning.
I am curious about something that has just occurred to me. There are many councillors in the House today, particularly Fianna Fáil councillors. I have spoken to some of my fellow Senators about their pay and conditions and I have pressed the Minister on the matter on a number of occasions.The report on pay and conditions is long overdue, as the Leader is aware. As the summer recess is currently staring us in the face, I am curious as to whether he has any update on when this report will be published? Publishing it is the least we can do. A commitment was given that we would have a new regime in place before the local elections, which did not happen. It is unsavoury and is unfair to the councillors involved.
I ask the Leader to indicate who the Government will name as its second female candidate to the European Commission. As the Leader is aware, the new President-elect of the European Commission, Ms von der Leyen - not Senator Leyden, although he is another well-travelled eurocrat-----
I want to raise the issue of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016. Members will know that this Act was introduced to provide a new streamlined arrangement for fast-tracking housing that is of a strategic nature, includes more than 100 units or is student accommodation. When that legislation was passed by both Houses, the Minister rightly gave a commitment that it would be reviewed within two years. We have learned much from this process. We have learned that, despite all the fast-track planning permission granted under this arrangement, very little housing has been developed. I live close to a large site for which permission for a substantial development was granted. The buildings were knocked down, a fence was erected and the land has now trebled in value with no builders on site. This legislation allows the fast-tracking of planning with blocked out third party appeals. In simple terms, that means our citizens are not able to make submissions about those developments. We have added millions to the fortunes of developers, yet in many cases they have not built even one new home. All this legislation has done is give them fast-track planning permission and allowed them to bypass public engagement, which is not tolerated anywhere in Europe, while they sit on valuable sites and vast wealth.
The legislation was to be reviewed by the Minister after two years. I am pleased the Minister placed an advertisement in the national press yesterday stating there would be a public consultation process, but it would have to be completed and submissions received from the public by 25 July. That is to be acknowledged. All of us in this Chamber need to get out and tell people that they now have an opportunity to make a public submission on this fast-track planning process, and that they need to make a submission to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government by 25 July 2019. I have written to the Department today and asked it to circulate the public consultation notice to every public representative, whether in the Dáil, the Seanad or a city or county council. This is really important. It is built into the legislation, in fairness. We are lawmakers and it is good that the provision is in place. I hope we can encourage members of the public to engage in this process. We cannot and should not allow developers to bypass public consultation or communities, secure planning permission that adds to the value of their lands and then sit on those sites without developing housing.
As we are coming to the end of our session, I want to thank the staff of the Houses for their support and patience throughout the term. I wish all colleagues of all political persuasions a good summer.
I am glad the Leader is here because on the previous two occasions I raised this issue, his deputy was in his place. I have been asking for three years for a debate on the US military's use of Shannon Airport and for three years the Leader has bobbed, weaved, ducked and dived to avoid it. He would make a great American footballer.
He has not given us a debate. I ask again for a debate at the earliest opportunity following our return in September, if we return. I draw attention to Edward Horgan in particular, who is a tremendous campaigner on Shannon and a former member of the Army. He pointed out that on 4 July, Miami Air M758MA, which is on contract to the US military, stopped in Shannon to refuel on its way back to the United States from the Middle East. Significantly, its destination in the Middle East was Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, just across the Red Sea from Yemen, where up to 100,000 children have died as the result of a war perpetrated by Saudi Arabia and its coalition. This is not the only aeroplane that has come through Shannon Airport to support that war. Mid-air refuelling planes landed at the airport last year. As the name suggests, these aircraft help refuel planes so they can continue bombing. Of all the wars in the world right now, the war in Yemen is perhaps the most horrific in terms of civilian deaths, and civilian slaughter from bombs in particular. I do not know about anyone else in this Chamber, but I cannot see how anyone can feel comfortable with our airport being used to support that war. We are supposed to be a neutral country. For three years, the Leader has dodged having a debate on this issue. I say that respectfully. I can understand why he has done so as there is no way to justify handing over our civilian airport in Shannon to US military forces. It is an absolute disgrace. I am entitled to a debate, and if we come back in September, I ask the Leader to respect the request I have been making for three years at this point in order that we can have a debate and I can hear where each of the political parties stands on the issue of the US military use of Shannon Airport. I want our civilian airport back and I hope others will join with me in that wish.
I first met Noel Whelan in 2013 when I was invited to work with his Democracy Matters campaign to save the Seanad in order to reform it. In 2015, I asked him to assist the Disability Federation of Ireland to make sense of the wider political and civil landscape so we could be more potent in our work. In a 15 minute conversation in the company of my management team, he put me through my paces with a small number of searching questions. He then asked me to tell him of two or three things that define the lives of people with disabilities. He said he liked doing things in threes. The answers given were clearly not precise or accurate enough and Noel's response was that I was talking about poverty, exclusion and loss of hope. He had nailed it as quickly as that. Members have heard me cite that phrase numerous times in this House and I have Noel Whelan to thank for that. I last met him on 27 February, when he agreed to be my guest speaker here in Leinster House where he addressed disability organisations on the relevance of the Seanad to their public benefit work. He was engaging as always and he summed up his presentation with the observation that the Presidency had been reformed over the past 30 years, not through changing the Constitution, but rather through changed perspective and the behaviour of the incumbents, in other words, the two Marys and Michael D. Higgins.
There has been repeated reference this morning, and rightly so, to Noel Whelan's leadership role in both the campaign for marriage equality and to repeal the eighth amendment. However, I have not heard any commentary about his inspiring leadership of the Democracy Matters campaign to save the Seanad. Noel's words on that, which I have repeated, relate to personal and collective behaviour on the parts of Members of the Seanad. They are an invitation to all in this House to re-evaluate our personal behaviour and perspective on our membership. Perhaps the absence of public comment on Seanad reform this morning is due to the perception that there have not been enough changes. The 60 Members of the Seanad are makers or breakers of those changes. Noel Whelan gave leadership and hope to Seanad reform and he has left that unfulfilled hope, in part, with us.To know the public person is also to know the holder of personal relationships. What I have said is no comfort in the epicentre of the grief and loss of those whom he loved and those who loved him - his wife, his family and his close friends - and we remember that he comes from a large Wexford family, and the love his mother and father gave. His dad was also a long-time member of the county council. May he rest in peace.
I join Senator Dolan, among others, in his very moving tribute to Noel Whelan whose death, sadly, was announced today. Like Senator Dolan I had the pleasure of knowing Noel. I had the privilege of serving with him on the steering group of the Together for Yes campaign and the Repeal the Eighth campaign last year. I had also campaigned alongside him on marriage equality and on the campaign to retain the Seanad. He was a great colleague at the Bar also. I express my sincere sympathy to Sinéad, his wife, and to their family and friends on the sad and shocking loss so young of Noel Whelan. He did so much by way of public service. I join others in paying tribute to him.
As we head into the recess I ask the Leader that we might have a debate on Brexit early in the next term. Clearly that will be the pressing issue as we return, and I have no doubt it will also dominate the political discourse through the summer. I welcome the incoming President of the European Commission, Ms Ursula von der Leyen's confirmation today that there will be no change to the backstop provision of the withdrawal agreement. This is very welcome to hear. I also welcome her commitment to gender balance on the membership of the Commission, which is very important. I very much look forward to hearing who the Government will name as its woman candidate, alongside Commissioner Phil Hogan.
No, I am not personally interested, but I thank the Leader for asking. I support the Tánaiste's critique, reported today, of the leadership contenders for the Conservative Party as an "utterly disingenuous debate". As British-US relations deteriorate to a new low following the forced resignation of the British ambassador to the US, Mr. Kim Darroch, we can only watch in dismay the developments in British politics and just hope that sense will be seen over the summer, and that there will be some move by the British side to ensure we do not see a chaotic and catastrophic no-deal Brexit in October.
Will the Leader ensure we have a debate early post-recess on the new exclusion zone legislation promised by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris? I have been calling for this legislation for some months now, as have others. Certainly, the need for the passage of such legislation has become more pressing as we have seen awful protests taking place outside hospitals, especially the Holles Street National Maternity Hospital. These people are opposed to abortion, which in itself is fine because this is their democratic view, but very distressing images and props are being used and it appears they are seeking to intimidate and obstruct women who are accessing services, and others who seek to access maternity services. This includes women who may have received devastating diagnoses of fatal foetal abnormality and family members who may be visiting very ill premature babies in hospital. These protests are not democratic and they should not be supported by anyone who has any compassion. I hope we see exclusion zone legislation coming in to protect women seeking to access services that were democratically voted for by the people in the referendum last year.
I note that 3 August this year marks the fifth anniversary of the horrific massacre of the Yazidi community in Iraq by ISIS. This will be marked by the UN and by the international community. I wanted to inform colleagues that this will be taking place on 3 August.
I wish everyone well over the recess. I wish the Cathaoirleach, the Leas-Chathaoirleach and all the staff in the Seanad Office, especially the Clerk of the Seanad, Martin Groves and the Clerk Assistant, Bridget Doody, for their support and kindness over the past term.
In the new term I ask that the Leader looks to conduct a debate on Ireland's marine spatial policy. I welcome the recent launch by the Government of a draft marine planning policy statement. The size of our offshore area is ten times the landmass of our island. The Irish continental shelf comprises 220 million acres. As well as being relatively unexplored, we have a very poor spatial planning system with regard to developing offshore renewables, for preserving biodiversity in these ocean waters, and for preserving our marine heritage. As we look towards the sea and we recognise the asset that is there, we also see a lot of shortcomings around the legislation and a lot of work we have to do. We also need a debate so we can be more enlightened and create a bigger conversation about what an asset and what resources we have in the sea.
In that regard I compliment all of the work of Dr. Peter Heffernan and the Marine Institute, which has run the Our Ocean summit and is heavily involved in SeaFest, which has been held in Galway for the past three years and took place in Cork this year. The Leader may be quite familiar with it. Two years ago RTÉ broadcast a three part series "The Deep Atlantic". This used some of the seafaring vessels of the Marine Institute and went out there. The wildlife and the marine life out there is amazing. It would benefit us to conduct a debate such as I have mentioned as we go forward to create a national marine planning framework. We must prioritise the creation of a proper planning and development system for our offshore territory. Sadly, such a system does not exist currently. It means that if we are to develop offshore wind or wave energy, it is highly complicated with different agencies required. It definitely is not an holistic approach.
The Leader might give some consideration to organising such a debate, along with a debate on Mercosur with the Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the House, which is a priority. I had mentioned this a few days ago and I am aware that colleagues have also asked for this.
I join in the tributes and sympathies to the late, great Brendan Grace, who was one of the greatest comedians Ireland has ever produced. I extend my deepest sympathies to his wife, Eileen, and his four children on the loss of this marvellous man. I saw his concerts and was there in 1989 when he met Frank Sinatra in the Horse Show House in Ballsbridge. It was a most memorable occasion to meet the great Frank Sinatra. I remember the jokes so well, and Brendan said it was one of the most expensive gigs in his life with the $20,000 he paid to Mr. Sinatra. Frank was enthralled. Then they sang "When Irish Eyes are Smiling". It was a memorable occasion. Brendan also had a great career in the United States of America.
I also send my deepest sympathy on the death of our old friend, Noel Whelan, senior counsel, to his wife, Sinéad, and his young son, Séamus. Noel was one of the founders of the Kennedy Summer School, a columnist with the The Irish Times, and a very intelligent man. Over the years Noel was very involved with Fianna Fáil and was a candidate in a general election. He was also a great pundit.
With the summer recess coming up it is an opportunity for the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs to intensify contacts in Europe over the summer with regard to the future and to Brexit, and at the earliest opportunity to meet the incoming Prime Minister of Great Britain, Boris Johnson, to ensure we have a strong relationship with him . It is very important that we build up a very close liaison with our nearest neighbour, which is one of our biggest customers. They are our customers but we in turn-----
I am pretty good at predicting that, but I could be surprised. I do not feel that Ireland has been well served by the negotiators from the European Union. I believe that we have been served appallingly in this whole effort. The backstop will not be relevant if there is no agreement, so let us bear that in mind.There are possible alternatives but have they been pursued? Have they pursued the possibility of a special economic zone between the United Kingdom and Ireland in terms of the Anglo-Irish trade agreement of the 1960s, which was taken over by the free trade agreement of the European Union? There are alternatives. The Republic of Ireland has only 1% of the population of Europe. We should have special consideration because of our unique historical and personal links with the United Kingdom. It is time to review the situation and see if there is any possibility that we will have a stronger relationship through a joint UK and Irish special economic zone within the European Union. It is possible. There are zones within the European Union. I do not believe it was pursued by the Government or that it has looked at alternatives. The Government has been too influenced by the overall negotiators in Brussels.
The Government should review the situation over the summer and see if it can come up with some other choice. If the UK leaves without an agreement, it will be importing cheap beef from Argentina and Brazil without any restrictions whatsoever. That will be an opportunity for those who will bring the meat through Northern Ireland and into the Republic, damaging the most important farming industry in this country. I appreciate the Leas-Chathaoirleach's leniency this morning. I make this appeal sincerely to the Government. It must review and think again.
I join with colleagues in expressing my sympathy to the families of Brendan Grace and Noel Whelan. Noel Whelan contacted me and asked to meet me two days after I was elected to this House in 2014. He met me downtown and spent two hours with me, advising me and expressing his wishes and desires for how the Seanad would develop over the coming years. I thought it was a most generous act. I had never met the man before in my life although I met him several times afterwards. He was at the forefront of so many changes in society and he will be dearly missed. The summer around Ireland will not be the same without Brendan Grace. That has to be said.
This weekend we have commemoration ceremonies at Islandbridge on Saturday and at Collins Barracks on Sunday. The Islandbridge affair this year will be attended by a fairly large contingent from the former Ulster Defence Regiment, UDR. There are many different interpretations as to the history of the UDR. I had the privilege some weeks ago of addressing a gathering of the UDR. The topic I chose was collusion. I spoke openly about collusion during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and about the atrocities that were committed. I also spoke about the decent men and women who were members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, who got out of their houses in the evening and patrolled Northern Ireland, who guarded vital installations and made sure that terrorist movements around Northern Ireland were disrupted. That is not for one moment excusing the fact that terrorists were also involved in that organisation. However, there were decent men and women there who did what they thought was right. The interesting thing about the UDR establishment is the number of Catholics who were involved in the early days. They were run out of it, not by Protestants but by Catholics. I am delighted that some of them will attend Islandbridge this year. It is a great step forward.
I refer to the constant calls we are getting for a Border poll. People in Northern Ireland know the direction this country is moving in. They do not need to be goaded or constantly threatened. I was asked recently by a group of unionists in Northern Ireland if it was true that we would put them in concentration camps when the unification takes place. I was appalled to be asked that question but it is actually a belief that is held among some. I must compliment the Government on taking a softly, softly approach in the entire area of Northern Ireland and I ask for this to continue. Instead of talking about Border polls, we should start trying to find a way to get the communities to work together in Northern Ireland.
I also wish to be associated with the messages of condolence to the Whelan family. I met Noel Whelan on numerous occasions. He certainly had his finger on the political pulse. He was very astute and was a great commentator. At election time, we really looked forward to his interpretation of what exactly was going to happen. We give our sympathies to his family and also to the family of Brendan Grace.
Senator Leyden outlined negotiations in terms of Ireland and the UK. The negotiations are not between Ireland and the UK. We are the EU. Ireland is part of the 27 countries. The EU is not negotiating on our behalf; we are part of it and it has showed great solidarity with us.
A backstop with a time limit is not a backstop. People talk about technological solutions but there is nowhere in the world where those solutions have proved successful. Six weeks ago our committee for the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly went to Crossmaglen PSNI station looking at illicit trading across the Border. We stopped in Newry and were transferred by eight armoured cars for the 16 miles to Crossmaglen as is normal for bringing PSNI men to Crossmaglen. There were two cameras at the PSNI station. All the other cameras in south Armagh for checking vehicle registration plates have been cut down. This is not a normal area. The British Government and the diplomats know that it is not Hereford or Watford. This is south Armagh in Northern Ireland. We saw it ourselves when we were going in the gate. The gate was rammed the night before. We asked them what they do and they said they do nothing. Anybody who thinks there can be a border on the island of Ireland is missing the fact that we are in a highly dangerous situation. We are part of the EU 27 and they have been loyal to us and have showed us massive solidarity.
There is a problem and it is the Conservative Party. This is about uniting the Conservative Party and it is not about anything else. As President Higgins said, I hope they get over their little tantrum in the next while, but we must look at what is happening. The diplomat, Kim Darroch, had to step down because he criticised Donald Trump. That is his job. That is what diplomats do. They look at what happens in different countries and do a report. This is a sad day for democracy and for relations between the UK and the United States. That is why we have to ensure that we stick with the European Union. It has not let us down.
I have a comment for Senator Craughwell. On my wedding night, in my wedding car with my new husband, the UDR took me out at gunpoint and went through every single present from my wedding day. The nationalist population, or whatever term the Senator wants to use, finds that the name of the UDR sticks in the craw. However, I commend the Senator and wish him the best of luck. We need to heal, not to forget.
I send condolences to the family and friends of Noel Whelan and wish them comfort and solace on their loss. It will take time, as grief does.
My union, the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, has never reneged on the industrial action that started five months ago. It does not believe that the promises made by the Minister, Deputy Harris, or the HSE will come to fruition in a way that has any depth or meaning for recruitment and retention.I salute my colleagues on their work to rule and overtime ban today and for continuing their industrial action.
A Sinn Féin councillor in Waterford has found out that the autism spectrum disorder waiting list in Waterford is going to be amalgamated into a regional list including Carlow, Kilkenny, south Tipperary and Wexford. Children in Waterford are waiting 12 months to see a psychologist but the wait in Wexford is five and a half years. It seems that when one area is doing well, the rug is pulled from under it by including it in an area that is neglected and not doing so well. They are short by 15 psychologists despite the 120 who were recently recruited. I ask the Leader to talk to the Minister of State with responsibility in this area, Deputy Jim Daly, and persuade him that the amalgamation should not take place until the personnel are in situand ready to go, as otherwise it will be to the detriment of children with autism.
I express my sympathies to the families of Noel Whelan and Brendan Grace. I did not know Noel Whelan but I was a huge admirer of his. He was a fantastic commentator and he will be a huge loss to Ireland. He was too young. I knew Brendan Grace well and travelled on tour with him many years ago in Australia. He was a pure gentleman and will also be a huge loss to Ireland.
The briefing held by Senator Lawless and Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad, VICA, yesterday was fantastic and I was very heartened to see such a packed room, with representatives in the audience from every political party. It is to be hoped the referendum will take place in November and it is a very important step to take for the Presidency. It is important that we all work together in this House on a cross-party basis to get it passed. I will be campaigning strongly for a yes vote in November. The campaign also had a public launch last night at the Irish Emigration Museum, which was a very fitting venue. Citizens and residents from inside and outside the State spoke passionately about how important this change is. It would mean a huge amount to Irish citizens in the North and those living abroad. I have two brothers who live in the US and they will be delighted. Their citizenship is as important as anybody else's and they would value the chance to elect our President. The Presidency is an important symbolic role, a head of State who speaks on behalf of Irish people everywhere, and we have a fantastic President at the moment. It would be an inclusive and positive step to recognise that the President represents all Irish people so I urge anyone with an interest in the issue to reach out to VICA and the other groups for more information. We are an outlier on this issue because we are one of only four EU member states to disenfranchise its citizens abroad. We have an opportunity to rectify that in November and I call on all parties to work together for a yes vote.
I would like to be associated with the comments of others on the sad passing of Brendan Grace and Noel Whelan. Both men made a significant contribution to Irish life in very different ways.
The issue I wish to raise today is one which would have been close to the heart of John Bailey, who also passed away recently. He was a councillor who was very much involved in watching housing development and looking for housing for his constituents. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has told me that the Government has approved the general scheme for the land development agency Bill for publication and priority drafting. The scheme provides for up to a €1.25 billion capitalisation of the Land Development Agency from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, and the first planning permission is expected to be lodged in the autumn. The agency is actively engaged with councillors in Dublin on State landbanks, and it is particularly active in Balbriggan in Fingal, where there is potential for 800 homes, and in Skerries, where there is potential for 200 homes. It is also engaged in the development for 550 homes of the former Shanganagh Prison site in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and it will be engaged in the redevelopment of the former Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum. These are just a few of the locations involved, and this is good news as it will give rise to affordable housing.
The Land Development Agency will use these State lands in the interest of providing this so I ask for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to come into the House to provide an update on the LDA's plans and activities. It is actively engaging with councils, including Fingal, on positive home development. I would like the Minister to outline some real projects to the House and to explain how the cost rental situation will work in practice, where homes will be available to rent for the long term for €1,200 per month. How will the affordable purchase scheme work? I am sure my Seanad colleagues would also like to have this information. The first application being due in the autumn, it is reasonable to get the Minister to come here at the first opportunity to give us an outline of what is happening and what the plans are.
This is good news for people who desperately need homes and is something local communities will also be interested in. They can be reassured about the scheme by having the details around what is planned so that a vacuum does not develop in which all sorts of rumour and negativity can develop.
I join colleagues in offering my sympathy to the families of Noel Whelan and Brendan Grace. I met Noel Whelan once or twice but I cannot say that I knew the man. He was far too young, aged 50. I was very taken by Senator Dolan's contribution as it came from the heart. Go raibh míle maith agat. I also travelled with Brendan Grace as I was once on a flight to New York with him. We were together on a plane for some seven hours and I discovered his deep sense of people and his passion. He was a very deep person behind the comedian and the stage person. He was a very caring person whom one loved to be with because the energy was positive and was there all the time. God be with him. I hope the families can recover in time. Both are a big loss.
I am sure most of us saw the RTÉ programme about Bord na gCon and greyhounds. It was terrible and I commend RTÉ on highlighting it to us. We should have been aware of this before it was on our television screens and we should have structures and systems in place to give us warnings about animal welfare. I started looking at it from a different angle, maybe a business or accounting background. In one clip, it was stated that Bord na gCon received €16 million in State funds last year. The FAI got €2.8 million for 450,000 members. I will pause here to take that in.
An Indecon report of 2014 highlighted the issue of animal welfare in Bord na gCon. I ask the Leader if the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine could come in to address us on this. Will the Leader get us an overall picture of how much money is given out to various State bodies and sporting organisations?It appears to be incredibly lopsided. We are entitled to an update on the matter.
On a personal and professional note, there are significant issues in the EU. I hope that our recently elected MEPs can do their bit to help change that. I am very pro-European but there need to be some significant changes or further cracks will appear. I strongly believe that Ireland should continue to be at the centre of the EU. As far as I am concerned, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, is doing a very good job - the best he possibly can. That is a non-political, non-partisan comment that I make on the basis of my instinct and what I hear from other people.
I ask the Leader to come back to us on Bord na gCon. Senators would very much welcome a debate in respect of it.
I join colleagues in sending my sympathies and condolences to the families and friends of Brendan Grace and Noel Whelan. In recent years, Noel was a great support and showed me a huge amount of kindness and encouragement right back to 2015 when he contacted me about my two daughters and a campaign video they did for the same-sex marriage referendum. We had numerous communications subsequently. He also facilitated some of the most memorable occasions I have had in the past few years when I visited Wexford. The memories are quite surreal. Funnily enough, one of them relates to a lunch with Brendan Grace. I am sure Brendan Grace would have some sort of dark joke about the fact that I sat down with him and Noel Whelan for dinner this time last year. It was lovely to be able to sit in their company and it is lovely to remember them that way. When I met Brendan last year, I was immediately attracted to the good-natured boldness in him. I wish we had got to know each other a lot more, but it was a pleasure to sit and have dinner with Noel and Brendan together last year. It is a nice memory and it was my privilege to know two Irish icons in different areas, one in music and comedy and the other in the political and democratic realm. I send my condolences to each of their families, especially Brendan's son-in-law, who has also been in contact with me in recent days. He was not only a son-in-law to Brendan but an extremely close friend to him. The two of them were inseparable last year in Wexford and they seemed to really look after each other. I will be thinking today of Frank, who texted me this morning to say that Brendan had admired my strength and determination in life. That was a really nice thing to hear from such a wonderful man.
Like others here, I wish to speak about the passing of two great people. I got to know Noel Whelan after I was first elected to this House. He made contact with me in 2011 and we discussed many things. I subsequently met him on numerous occasions. I always admired him because he went into politics, he stood for Fianna Fáil and it did not work out but he was not afraid of expressing his views, regardless of whether people agreed with him. He did so in the most articulate way imaginable, especially during the marriage equality referendum campaign and that relating to the eighth amendment, on which he took a very particular stance and was not afraid or shy about putting his case forward. I did not know Brendan Grace but I do know he spent an awful lot of time in County Clare. He purchased a pub in Killaloe. I know many people who knew him well and who speak extremely fondly of him. He spent many nights in the Armada Hotel in Spanish Point as an entertainer and as a guest. I understand that he was there very recently. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha dílse. We pass on our sympathies to their families and wish them well in dealing with their grief.
Since this is the final Order of Business before the summer recess, it is appropriate that we thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach, the Cathaoirleach, the Clerk, Martin Groves, the Clerk Assistant, Bridget Doody, and all the team in the Seanad Office who ensure that this House runs smoothly. It is also appropriate that we thank the rest of the staff in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I refer to the ushers and the support staff in the various sections, including the canteen, the Library, the Bills Office and so on. If it were not for them, the House would not be able to function. I hope they have an enjoyable, relaxing summer. There are lots of activities in County Clare. If they wish to visit us, they would be very welcome.
I join in the thanks to all the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Many of them will continue to work during the summer, and I thank them for that too.
I second Senator Gavan's suggestion that we have a debate on military transport through Shannon when the House returns in September. I have heard calls for such a debate on many occasions. It is overdue in light of the very hawkish atmosphere that obtains internationally. The assertion of and clarity surrounding Ireland's neutrality and its role as a peace-building nation are more important now than ever before. Ursula von der Leyen, her country's Minister for Defence, is the proposed candidate for President of the European Commission. We need to be crystal clear to our European allies and countries across the world that our unique voice is one that is for disarmament, peace-building and neutrality.
In the context of peace-building, I wish to make a special call, which the Leader pass on. I had hoped to have a Commencement matter on this today but, due to the number of matters tabled, it was not taken. Civil society in Sudan has been expressing very clearly and strongly the need and desire for a transition to a civilian-led government. For those of us who care about democracy, it is a really important moment. After 30 years of dictatorship we have a vibrant, young, dynamic and inclusive Sudanese civil society wishing to engage in peace negotiations and have a civilian government. Ethiopia has stepped in as mediator, but Ireland can have a role in ensuring we see meaningful negotiations, that the result of those negotiations is a genuinely democratic civilian-led government and that the lives of civilian protestors are protected. I say this particularly in the context of major days of action this weekend, on 13 and 14 July. I ask the Leader to pass on to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade a request that Ireland indicate that it is watching to ensure there is no violence against protesters. The other issue the new European Commission must deal with over the summer is the fact that European funding is going to the rapid support forces in Sudan, now operating without any government. Many fear that these forces have very strong and inappropriate links to the Janjaweed, who have been engaging in violence against civilians. We must therefore look to suspension of European funding, much as the African Union has temporarily suspended Sudan's membership of the union pending successful negotiations towards a civilian government.
This leads me to one important point. I say all this because democracy matters. One person who cared passionately about democracy and politics was Noel Whelan. I also had the opportunity to work with him a little on the marriage equality and repeal of the eighth amendment campaigns but also as part of Democracy Matters. He was somebody who believed passionately in the importance of politics. He was humorous, he was an analyst and he was strategic. Most of all, he believed that politics was important, and I know he encouraged so many people to engage in politics. I urge that when we come back from the summer recess this Seanad look to how we can fulfil the vision, which Noel put forward, for a more democratic Seanad in which everyone has a voice. I join in sending my sympathies to all his family and his many diverse friends across Ireland.
I thank 16 Members of the House for their contributions to the Order of Business. On my own behalf and that of the Fine Gael group and the House, I extend our deepest sympathy to the family of Brenda Grace - his wife, Eileen, and his four children - on his sad passing. As has been eloquently described here this morning, he was a gentle person, a person of huge compassion and a great entertainer. His tragic loss, as Senator Ruane eloquently said, is felt by his family more than anybody else. We offer them our condolences and sympathy. They are in our thoughts.
Noel Whelan was a person I got to know well and I spent many an hour in a radio studio engaging with him. He was an extraordinary person. His intellect was one of the best I ever encountered. His ability to mould a campaign, whether retention of the Seanad, marriage equality or repeal the eighth, was extraordinary. To his wife, Sinéad, their son, Séamus, and his family, we offer our deepest sympathy on their tragic loss, and at a very young age as well.
Senator Davitt raised the issue of councillors' pay and conditions. As the Senator will be aware, the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, commissioned Ms Sara Moorhead SC to chair a review. Publication of the review is imminent and we will have that debate in the new term. I join with Senator Davitt in recognising that there is a need for the pay and conditions of councillors to be improved.
The Senator made reference to the European Commission, as did Senator Bacik, in terms of the Commissioner appointments. Our country, as the Senators will be aware, has nominated the current Commissioner, Mr. Phil Hogan, to be reappointed. I note Dr. von der Leyen has asked for two. We all support the principle of gender balance. Unfortunately, it is well beyond my pay grade to give Senator Davitt the name of the person this morning, if there will be one. My personal view is that member states should retain their right to be able to nominate their own Commissioner and I would not like to see that being taken away from member states.
Senator Boyhan raised the issue of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016. As Members will be aware, the commencement order was signed two years ago. Since then, we have seen 7,102 houses and 4,479 student bed spaces approved. Last year, An Bord Pleanála, within the 16 weeks, dealt with 39 cases. I note there was a case before the courts this week where the Southwood Park Residents' Association won a High Court decision against An Bord Pleanála. There is a balance to be struck regarding the fast-tracking of planning but there is also, as Senator Boyhan referenced, the need for an input from residents. We will have that debate in due course.
Senators Gavan and Higgins made reference to Shannon Airport. As Leader of the House, I have never ducked anywhere from anything. Senator Gavan has an opportunity in the Commencement debate to raise the issue of Shannon Airport any day he wants to.
If the Senator has done that, he has had his opportunity. We have had debates on foreign affairs and on European affairs. I would be happy to have a debate on foreign affairs. Our position on neutrality has not changed. I agree with Senator Higgins. We are a peace-building country. Our focus should be, as a neutral country, on building bridges, healing wounds and encouraging dialogue across the world.
I have commented on that, as Senator Gavan will be aware. The Senator and I have more in common on many issues than he might suggest. The point he made is one we will have a debate on.
Senator Bacik raised the issue of Brexit as did Senators Leyden and Feighan. It is my hope that we will have a debate on Brexit the second week back.
The first week back we cannot have it because the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and the junior Ministers in the Department will travel to the UN in New York. We will have that debate the second week we are back.
I remind Senator Leyden that the Fine Gael Ministers have been strong in attending Council meetings and have been working hard to rebuild and enhance Ireland's position across Europe with member states. As Senator Feighan said, we are not negotiating on our own, it is the EU that is negotiating and we all have worn the green jersey. It is the last day and I will not get into a fight.
Senator Bacik is correct in calling out what happened in the UK in terms of the remarks by the two contenders for the Tory leadership and their lack of understanding and appreciation. Senator Higgins and I were in Luxembourg last week at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, Parliamentary Assembly. It is worrying that many British parliamentarians do not seem to understand what is going on. Last week, I met people such as Lord Bowness and Lord Dobbs - good friends of the Leas-Chathaoirleach.
They are men of intellect who are despondent. When one sees such people, parliamentarians of considerable experience, worried and alarmed, one must wonder what is going on. One sees the leaking of the ambassador's remarks or comments. That is not good for democracy. I hope British parliamentarians would assume responsibility and not play commentators.
Senator Mulherin asked for a debate, which I will facilitate, on the draft marine planning policy statement and marine spatial policy in the new term. Senators Craughwell and Devine made reference to the commemoration ceremony next weekend and I join him in welcoming that event. As Senator Devine rightly said, it is about healing. It is about remembering our past and not forgetting it. It is also about moving forward collectively.
Senator Devine made reference to the autism spectrum disorder waiting list in Waterford. This is an issue of concern and my information is that the HSE is endeavouring to ensure equality of access and is trying to improve waiting lists and waiting times, not only in Waterford but across the country. That is why it is in the process of hiring 15 additional child psychologists. In the short term, it may require an extension of waiting times, which is regrettable. It is about ensuring that we have access to treatment, care, support and assessment. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, is endeavouring to find a pathway to expedite waiting times and access to services. It is a huge issue and it is a challenge that must be overcome. I accept the point the Senator made.
Senator Reilly raised the issue of housing and the Land Development Agency. As the Senator will be aware, the agency is up and running and there is an interim board under the chairmanship of Mr. John Moran. The agency is currently working on eight sites with seven more being actively pursued. I would be happy to have the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, come to the House in the new term.
Senator Higgins raised Sudan. The point here is an important one. We have seen dialogue between the military and the opposition. I concur completely with the Senator that there is a need to see a civilian government put in place. There is a need for us, in the context of our campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council, to take a more proactive role and to be that flag-bearer and facilitator. I would be happy to work with Senator Higgins. We can talk to the Minister about the matter.
On a positive note, I extend my congratulations and I hope those of House to Rory O'Neill, that is, Panti, and his husband, Anderson Cabrera, on their marriage yesterday.
We should finish on a positive note. We had a sad start to the Order of Business today. It is important that we remember those good people who have passed away, but yesterday was a good news day for Rory O'Neill, aka Panti, who played a huge role in changing minds. We offer him and Anderson our deepest and sincere congratulations.
On my own behalf and that of the House, I extend my thanks to the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Cathaoirleach for their courtesy, good humour and leniency towards us all.I also thank the Seanad staff represented here by Mr. Martin Groves and Ms Bridget Doody for their professionalism, dedication, commitment, courtesy, and their very good advice, although we might not always listened to it. I thank Ms Orla Murray in the Leader's office for her tremendous work and her great ability to keep the whole show running. I offer my thanks to all Members of the House for their co-operation and courtesy and to the staff of the House, including those who record us, those in the Bills Office and in the Journal Office, the ushers, the canteen staff and the staff in all parts of the House. I thank them all most sincerely for their tremendous work. This is a great place to be. We benefit from the fact we have staff who go over and beyond the call of duty. I hope that all Members and staff have a very peaceful and restful summer and that when we come back on 24 September, we resume the battle on whatever issue we need to fight.