Friday, 17 July 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Very well spoken.
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding a report of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on the amendment of Standing Order 145, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, motion regarding the Order of Business to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1 without debate; and No. 3, National Oil Reserves Agency (Amendment) and Provision of Central Treasury Services Bill 2020, all Stages to be taken at 12.15 p.m., with the time allocated to group spokespersons in the debate on Second Stage not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply, Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter.
I am happy to support the Order of Business. Today we are debating further legislation in our battle against Covid-19. It shows the extraordinary lengths this House and Dáil Éireann can go to, to work together for the betterment of our people, and, when times are tough and challenging, the speed with which we can make drastic and sweeping changes that are in the interest of the public good.
In that context I wish to raise the childcare issue and a need to re-evaluate. Many people returning to work as we reopen our economy still cannot get access to adequate childcare. Some have been offered part-time childcare or childcare for one or two days a week even though they are expected to go back to work five days per week.Sometimes we have thought that things could not be possible. For example, working from home was thought, by many companies, to be almost impossible, until it was required and needed in the context of Covid-19. We need to re-evaluate how we care for children in this State in the context of Covid-19. In the past weeks we have seen the campaign to extend maternity leave for longer than the six-month period. Many mothers and fathers are feeling under pressure because they have nowhere to put their children as there is no childcare. Would it not be better if there was an option for parents to stay at home? Would it not be better if, for that first year of the child's life, the option was there for mum or dad to be at home with their child? When we consider the financial pressure that will be on the State to fund childcare, which we know we have to do, and when we think of this cost, should there not also be the option to fund childcare in the home? In the context of all of the drastic and sweeping changes we see happening in the country, we need to re-evaluate how we do things and give those options. In the long term it will prove to be less expensive for the Exchequer. It would be more beneficial to families and it would also take the pressure off.
It is unsatisfactory that we have a situation where people are being told that we have to reopen the economy and they must get back to work, which of course we must do, but childcare is not available. This issue is still rumbling on. It has not been sorted and it needs to be sorted. It cannot just be a secondary consideration. It has to be a priority for our country and for this House. It would be prudent to consider how we might facilitate small children remaining in the home if possible, and also have the option of going into childcare. It should be both of those. There is a crèche available for the Oireachtas that requires a parent to use it five days or none. This is not conducive to Members who may not be here five days per week. We need to be a bit more flexible in how we do things. There has been extra pressure. Mums and dads had to take to the gates of Leinster House to have their voices heard because many mothers and fathers did not feel they had support in the last six months and especially for those crucial first few months. It brings to the fore the crucial impact on families when the pressure is there to return to work without proper supports to do so.
Last week I spoke about the impact of Covid-19 on the arts sector. Since then I have been inundated by people on the matter. It is very upsetting to be honest. I have been inundated by people from every part of the arts industry, theatre workers, actors and many musicians who have contacted me. We are all aware that working in the arts is precarious at the best of times but since the lockdown in March the industry has been devastated. Other industries could ask their employees to work from home but this is just not possible for musicians, crew, actors or theatre workers.
The arts sector is totally dependent on people being able to gather in large numbers. It is not possible for a music venue or theatre to reopen if its capacity is reduced by up to 70%. While the financial loss is a huge problem we also have to address the mental health impact of having a person's livelihood and identity being taken away. This should not be underestimated. Musicians have called me this week to ask "Why am I on jobseeker's allowance when I have a job? I am a musician and that is who I am. I have worked all my life as a musician and I want to continue to do so." Not knowing when one can get back to work and be able to provide for one's family is hugely stressful. Utility bills, childcare bills, mortgage repayments or rent still have to be paid. The pandemic unemployment payment has been reduced for many of the people who have contacted me and it is really distressing. A decision on extending these payments until the industry is back to full capacity would go some way to reducing the stress and anxiety being felt by thousands of workers in the arts sector.
Initial findings from a survey of workers in the entertainment industry conducted by the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, which is doing a great job at the moment, are very worrying. It is important to state that these are early indications and I will bring the final result of the survey to the House once it is completed. Of the people surveyed 71.5% are wholly dependent on entertainment as their source of income and are now living on €350 or €200 per week. How can anyone survive on this? To ask people who have worked in entertainment for years to go onto jobseeker's allowance is ludicrous as the only jobs for which they are suitable are in entertainment, which is now closed down.Some 52% are self-employed. Many of these workers have spent years building up their businesses and have been forced to sell equipment to meet their living expenses. They will not be able to resume work immediately when the crisis is over. A shocking statistic is that 52% have had their income reduced by more than 50%. I believe that when the final figures are produced, this percentage will be much higher, as the number of people who have contacted me and said they are totally reliant on Covid payments is staggering. Some 60.1% are struggling to deal with the financial stress. Some 11% have never suffered mental health problems but feel that they are now experiencing these problems as a result of financial stress. Another worrying statistic is that 3% have considered or attempted self-harm. As I stated, these are only preliminary findings but I think they are an indication of the crisis being experienced by people in the entertainment sector. The Minister should come into the House and outline the plans that are being delivered to address this crisis, and give people some hope that their situation is being taken seriously.
An article in The Economistthis week refers to Ireland being an unlikely diplomatic superpower. The point is that relative to our population size, we hold extraordinary clout in Europe. The Brexit negotiations being effectively shaped around our interests is an example of that. The article also mentioned our access to the corridors of power in the United States. It might have mentioned our membership of the UN Security Council. Unfortunately, it did not give much focus to how we use our diplomatic clout on issues happening in the wider world. I believe that we have on occasions maintained a shocking silence in the face of some incredible human rights abuses worldwide.
Late last year, Senator McDowell and I raised the issue of the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in north-west China. At least 1 million Uyghur people have been herded into what are effectively concentration camps to be "re-educated". There are at least 85 camps. Children are separated from their parents to be brainwashed, forced to speak Chinese and made to abandon their own culture. At least 10% of the entire Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region is now incarcerated. The aim is to systematically destroy their culture. As one writer put it, in that province, every day is Kristallnacht. Needless to say, the Chinese Government lied through its teeth about this for several years until the truth was exposed. In recent weeks, we have had even more grotesque information revealed, with China forcing Uyghur women to be sterilised or fitted with contraceptive devices in an attempt to limit the Muslim population. Pregnant women are threatened with internment in camps if they do not agree to have abortions in a clear, systematic attempt to reduce the Uyghur population.
There has been silence from our Government and the EU, and a conspicuous silence from the political left on this issue, all things considered. Even among the green movement, discussion of China tends to focus on the carbon footprint of our beef exports to China more than the barbarism of the Chinese state to which we are selling that beef. There has been complete silence from the leading Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia. Of course, they are not bastions of human rights, but one would think they would have a word or two to say about the mass persecution of fellow Muslims. They too seem to be cowed into silence because of their economic dependence on trade with China.
There are other issues that we could talk about. I intend to raise the issue of Hong Kong in the coming days. It is time Ireland joined Britain and other countries in establishing an international contact group to keep pressure on China regarding the defence of human rights and freedoms that we here all take for granted in Hong Kong. Those freedoms are now under severe threat with the imposition of the new Chinese security law. What of our attitude to China's treatment of Taiwan? As far back as 1990, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gerry Collins, when asked in the Dáil if we would open diplomatic relations with China, baldly replied, "Ireland recognises the Government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate Government of China". It was Taiwan that handled the Covid crisis when China was keeping schtum about the emergence of that threat to international health and safety. We need to reassess our attitude to Taiwan and to be vocal on the issue of Hong Kong. It all comes under the umbrella of a consideration of how we regard China, which is a major threat to freedom in the world. If it is bad now, it will be much worse in 20 years. We need to have a debate on this issue.
I raise the immediate problem of public transport in our rural towns, an important matter about which I am sure other Members have also been contacted. An article in The Irish Times on Wednesday stated that 64% of licensed coach and bus services throughout the country are now not operational. We also heard this week that, thankfully, 250,000 people have returned to work since the March outbreak of Covid-19, which can help us to appreciate the seriousness of the problem I am raising.
I have been informed, on the basis of representations I made to the National Transport Authority, NTA, that discussions are ongoing with licensed bus operators regarding emergency funding. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport into the House to discuss this important matter that is affecting so many of our communities.We need funding to be released as quickly as possible. We all hope that many more of our citizens can return to work.
I am raising this issue because I have received many representations from individuals from different areas, particularly the town of Monasterevin, County Kildare. Monasterevin has had no bus service since March. In fairness, some bus services were arranged through local representations, but for only one day a week. Monasterevin needs regional investment and support. The local authority continues to allow new houses to be built in the town, many hundreds indeed in the past number of months. The social infrastructure and investment needed is simply not keeping pace. The town has been waiting for more than 15 years for a promised new secondary school. There are waiting lists for primary schools, which have also been promised new buildings. The great sports clubs and community centre in the town continue to provide outlets for many but these organisations need further investment and more community space.
I look forward to raising the concerns of the community of Monasterevin with the various Ministers we will debate with in the coming weeks and months. Towns such as Monasterevin are the heartbeat of this country and it is time that we invested in and protected them.
I welcome yesterday's announcement by the Taoiseach that the North-South Ministerial Council will meet at the end of this month. That is a positive and necessary step forward, and I wish all concerned well in their work.
I also welcome the apology issued this week by the Chief Constable of the PSNI to investigative journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. Some colleagues might remember that I hosted a briefing with Trevor and Barry, two respected, experienced and esteemed investigative journalists in the North. They did pioneering and crucial work with the film, "No Stone Unturned". In that film, which investigated the massacre at Loughinisland in 1994, the journalists exposed a stark, albeit not particularly surprising to many of us, level of collusion between the British security services and the people who carried out the murderous attack on the people in Loughinisland. The PSNI Chief Constable apologised and acknowledged that, as opposed to investigating the evidence that was brought forward by these journalists and pursuing those responsible for the massacre, the PSNI searched the offices of the journalists and commandeered the evidence gathered by them. That is a worrying insight into issues that still exist around legacy investigations in the North.
I am proud that the previous Seanad put through all the legislation required of this State under the Stormont House Agreement in one day. Unfortunately, issues such as the one I outlined, and many others relating to unresolved cases, cause much hurt and trauma when they come to the fore. The British Government has not moved one iota towards implementing the mechanisms that it agreed to as part of the Stormont House Agreement. The apology that was given this week was very important. Barry and Trevor did not want any of this trauma brought on them, their families or professional careers.
We must keep the victims of Loughinisland and the people who lost loved ones to the fore of our minds. To this day, like many other families, those bereaved by the massacre still campaign for truth and justice. I hosted those families for a screening of the film in Leinster House during the previous term. The film represented an important and crucial piece of investigative journalism that brought further, important evidence to the fore and the fact that it was the journalists who were arrested brought more trauma to the families of the victims of the massacre. If we are serious about defending free speech and upholding that as a fundamental aspect of democracy, while not disagreeing with anything that has been said by others this morning, we need to start by looking closer to home.
Sorry, not on the Order of Business. I remind Members that there is a motion before the House on the Order Paper about the two-minute rule. There was some extra time yesterday, injury time, as it were, but there is no injury time today. We are going to have to stick to the two-minute rule for contributions of Members other than leaders.
Even though it was raised this House yesterday, I want to speak on the Government decision, from the NPHET team in particular, on the hospitality sector. Even though there has been great respect for the NPHET team over recent months and it has done tremendous work, this is a very difficult decision for pubs throughout every village and city in Ireland. Naturally, paramount to all of us in this House is public health and safety, but from that perspective, there were certainly alternatives that did not seem to be included in this decision. We certainly need to look at them and I will be raising this at the highest level. We are talking here about 7,000 publicans throughout the country together with 50,000 jobs. At the end of the day, it is the uncertainty that is creating significant issues and anxiety for many families throughout this country. In this week alone, in Rathmore in the Cathaoirleach’s constituency, Cahill's pub has decided to close. This number will continue to rise over the next coming weeks and months. There is a perception in the public that the licensed trade is a goldmine. The fact of the matter is that nothing could be further from the truth. SMEs are facing significant challenges, as has been mentioned in this House, and there are 1,500 fewer publicans and in this country over the past ten years. Many of these are families and provide great service to their community. These are ordinary people who deserve respect and great support.
I will be raising with regard to the July stimulus package that we need support in that sector, particularly while closure is ongoing, but also, as was raised yesterday, we need certainty as to opening. Guidelines need to be issued immediately.
It is great to hear that today is Nelson Mandela Day, which is a source of great pride. I also congratulate Senator Flynn for Traveller Pride Week. It is real honour to have her in the Chamber.
Regarding the "Prime Time" programme last night on nursing homes, my query is on the families and the pain and distress showed at not being able to get close to their loved ones in nursing homes. We know from the show last night that there were healthcare workers who were working 12-hour shifts, six days a week. We know from families of loved ones that the pain, anxiety and distress of not being able to be near their loved ones at end of life was phenomenal. From the Oireachtas special committee that was held here, we know that 30,000 people call residential care units home.
On the guidance on visitation to residential care facilities, the positive news we heard yesterday was that there were low numbers of cases identified in residential care units. I ask the Leader to arrange that the Minister for Health or a member of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre would be able to give Members an update on testing. There has been four-week testing of staff in residential care units. Currently, when it comes to visitors, one can have two named visitors, and each of those visitors, one a week, can attend and visit their loved ones for half an hour. Those two named visitor limits are currently set in stone. It would be nice to get an update to see whether, if there are low numbers of cases in residential units and if the testing of residential staff has proved positive, there would be a review from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre of this.The areas in which visitors could make a difference in terms of their eligibility to attend could be the temperature checking that is in place, usage of the Covid app and that if there is a necessity for a period of isolation we would look at that. It is important that we make a society-wide difference. We can do this by wearing a mask and social distancing, which are important. This will ensure we are able to crush the curve and reduce the R number. I ask for that to be considered and for us to get a response from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his input to the House this morning. As he pointed out, it is Traveller Pride week and to mark the week we are celebrating diversity within and asking allies from the general population to also get involved in the two-week event that lasts until 24 July. As many Members of the House will be aware, during the term of the previous Government a great Oireachtas committee - the Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community - had four specific key areas of work: health, education, mental health and accommodation. A lot of work from that committee remains to be done and I know the Ceann Comhairle supports setting it back up. I would welcome the committee being re-established without delay and I ask allies in the House to get involved in it when that happens.
I want to move on from the issues of Traveller Pride week and a new committee on Traveller issues. The outcome of last night's Dáil debate on the extension of maternity leave was disappointing. I ask the Government to consider its decision not to extend maternity leave for parents and I would like to have a debate on it in the House.
I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Mullen and I hope we will have a debate on the human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party.
I wish to focus on a number of education matters. I am sure the House will join me in welcoming the appointment of Professor Kerstin Mey as the interim president of the University of Limerick, UL. This is the first time in Ireland's long and noble history of higher education that we have had a female university president. It is something that is welcome and I would also pay tribute to her predecessor, Dr. Desmond Fitzgerald. I pay tribute to the work of Professor Brian MacCraith, who has stepped down as president of Dublin City University, DCU, as Members know, and who has contributed enormously to public debate in Ireland. I wish all the best to his successor, Professor Daire Keogh. UL and DCU are two institutions that the graduates of which will benefit from the Bill I introduced yesterday. I also pay tribute to Professor Patrick O'Shea, who is retiring as president of University College Cork, UCC.
I have concerns around the decision of the Department of Education and Skills that the leaving certificate results will not be announced until 7 September. I would like the Minister to come into the House to talk about that decision and about how the bell curve and the standardisation measures are being used by the Department. I am also concerned that there was a failure by the Department to consult the Irish Second-Level Students' Union on this decision. It is essential that students who are affected are engaged in this process.
I hope the Minister for Education and Skills will also come in and address the issue of the shortage of second-level school places in Gorey and Wexford town. This is something I highlighted during my brief term as a Deputy. The problem continues. We have a situation whereby there may not be sufficient places within the next year in Wexford town and Gorey and there seem to be no plans coming forward from the Department to address the issue.
Ireland's leadership in the battle against Covid-19 and our continued vigilance is something to be proud of but I recommend to the Leader that we would have a rolling debate on it in the Seanad and that we keep it under constant review.In particular, it is about the way we will cope with the dreaded second surge. We will have to be ready for that possibility and for the winter flu season, etc. There should be a radical improvement in the carer's allowance, a radical upping of the status of our carers and a celebration of them. I commend that that be part of the debate, as well as retirement villages and granny flats.
As Ireland is leading locally on this issue, we should also monitor Ireland's contribution to the international situation during our debates. We cannot fight this pandemic without having equality between northern and southern Europe. We will have to support the poorer regions and areas. When, please God, a vaccine is found, and there seems to be great progress on it, and it becomes available, it will not work if it is not made available to every section of the population in every part of the world. Ireland should lead a call for that internationally, and we have a capital of goodwill to do that. We must ensure that a logistical plan is ready and financial supports available to get the vaccine to people in every part of the world, and particularly into poorer districts in southern Europe and into the migrant and refugee population. I ask the Leader that we would have a rolling debate under review, perhaps, every month or even less and that we would discuss that, update it and make proposals arising therefrom.
I commend Senator Malcolm Byrne's endorsement of the issue raised by Senator Mullen. We have the credentials now to do it. We are a member of the United Nations Security Council and we should stand up to that sort of shocking abuse in China.
As we continue to deal with the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, I ask that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport would come into the House to outline his plans regarding the resumption of air travel. I call on him to begin the process of administering pre-travel Covid-19 tests at all points of departure for those travelling to the State. There is no doubt that the tourism industry in Ireland has suffered a catastrophic loss as a result of the pandemic. Among the many Irish businesses suffering the effects of the national lockdown is the air travel industry. People have begun to move towards normality and part of that has been an increase in the number of those travelling abroad, including those who are arriving in Ireland. Some people have to travel but others are choosing to accept the risks and travel needlessly. Either way, measures must be put in place to ensure that the safest travel environment possible is created to mitigate the transmission of the virus across international boundaries. There are technology and policy solutions available to us that will serve to provide assurances to those who travel that we are taking the best possible care with their health.
It is paramount that we show leadership on this matter. Our tourism and hospitality industry relies on this market. According to the most recent statistics, 1.25 million people were employed in the sector, although it is unknown how Covid-19 has impacted that figure. We do know that tourism added €6 billion annually to our economy prior to Covid-19. If we hope to retain anything remotely close to that figure this year we need to act now. Currently, the Government requires all those entering this country to complete a public health passenger locator form and mandates that all arrivals quarantine for a period of 14 days before commencing any further travel. As it is not entirely clear how this is enforced, travellers to Ireland could potentially be wandering around Irish towns and cities spreading the virus unbeknownst to themselves. What we do know is that the 14 days quarantine does not contribute one cent towards the tourism sector that we could be trying hard to revive.
Administering Covid-19 tests to those flying would ensure that those with coronavirus would be found and would remain at their point of origin, leaving those who travel to arrive virus-free and able to contribute towards an industry that is vital to this country, and one that welcomed 11.2 million tourists last year. I acknowledge that this is an evolving situation but I cannot sit idly by because the reality is that if we choose not to invest in testing now, we may have to bail out an industry that lies at the heart of Ireland.As we wait for the July stimulus announcement, the aviation and tourism industries have their seat belts buckled tightly, awaiting leadership. I call on the Minister to act swiftly and decisively and to insist on preflight Covid-19 checks in the country of origin. Ireland must lead the way on this before it is too late. This is too important.
I thank the Leader for yesterday agreeing to bring in two Ministers before the House goes into recess but I ask her to also invite the Minister for Education and Skills. Last week, I raised some concerns about the challenges facing students and teachers in schools that hope to reopen in late August and September. It is vital that we be given the opportunity to engage with the Minister on that issue and on the issue of school transport to enable children to get to school. I also wish to engage with the Minister with regard to the new-build projects for St. Paul's secondary school, Monasterevin, for Coláiste Íosagáin, Portarlington and, most essentially, for a new school in the area around the Curragh, Newbridge and Kildare town.
It is important that we also have the opportunity to debate with the Minister in respect of another particular project, namely, the school completion programme. This programme was under the aegis of Tusla but has now moved back to its rightful home in the Department of Education and Skills. There are 120 such projects around the country which liaise and deal with approximately 460 primary schools and 240 post-primary schools. They deal with vulnerable children who are at risk of leaving school prior to a State examination year and with some children who have already done so. Those projects cater for vulnerable children. They are dealing with 12,000 children. I brought one such group, based in my own area of the Curragh, Kildare, to the Dáil last year. I know of the very valuable work it does. We have an opportunity to look again at the scheme and at the supports and resources needed now that it has moved back to the Department. It is an absolutely crucial and vital service. We need to look at it again and to debate with the Minister as to its potential to support children and families.
This week, in my native county of Tipperary and around the country, tillage farmers have started the harvest season. Anyone who comes from a farming family will know how exciting this time of year, when harvest starts, is. I read during the week that Bord Bia cannot insist on Irish grain being used in the grass-fed beef standard. That is really disappointing. We are promoting our beef products around the world as the best one can possibly get. Our grain can be used by farmers wishing to meet the grass-fed standard and we should be encouraging that. This same requirement is in place in the lamb, beef and dairy sectors. I see no reason why it cannot be introduced with regard to grain.
If possible, I would like the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to come before the House. I know he only took up that brief this week but this is a very important time for the agriculture industry. The next six months are crucial in light of Covid-19, Brexit, and the possible trade deal. It is important that the new Minister, who I wish well in his portfolio, come in to outline his vision for the agriculture industry for the coming years.
I offer my condolences to the Keegan family on the passing of Christine Keegan. She had to fight for 39 years for justice for her two daughters, Mary and Martina, who perished in the Stardust fire in 1981. For decade after decade, this State has treated the families of the victims of the Stardust fire shabbily. It tarred a working-class community with lies and subjected it to cover-ups. Never did the families give up, however. Christine Keegan was a leader in the campaign. In September 2019, the then Attorney General granted the families of the 48 victims a new inquest into the events of that night. This was a monumental decision taken on the backs of men and woman such as Christine Keegan who refused to give up their fight for justice. It has been ten months since the decision was made and the inquest has yet to begin. Tragically, Christine has died before getting the answers she so rightly deserved. I would like the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House to update us on the reason this delay has taken place and to give a commitment that when the inquest is established, it will be given the funding needed to be human rights compliant and will look to the Ballymurphy inquest model as a gold standard on how to treat families who were treated so shabbily in the past. We need this inquest established as soon as possible because the surviving relatives do not have the luxury of time. It is deeply devastating that Christine has died before getting the answers she deserved for her daughters.
I want to raise several issues. Yesterday, we saw the second meeting of the Ireland-Northern Ireland Specialised Committee between the UK Government and the European Commission. At this stage in the transition period, the Commission wanted a lot more done. For example, it wanted an office in Belfast, which was originally agreed by the UK but then denied. I requested that Dundalk be an option. I made my request to Josep Borrell in my capacity as a member of the Committee of the Regions. This is still an open option, I might add.
As far as I can see, far too much up is in the air and there is not enough clarity on the commitment by the UK Government on the Northern Ireland protocol. Yesterday, the Commission outlined how concerned it is about the progress of practical and time-consuming preparations needed for the full implementation of this protocol. We heard that last week Angela Merkel asked the EU Parliament to prepare for a no-deal scenario. What are the EU's contingency plans? I have fears about the UK's commitment to this protocol and I would appreciate the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs updating the House. Towns such as Dundalk and Newry, and all of our citizens along the Border, North and South, could again be collateral damage because of the UK Government refusing to accept that this one island is a unique political quandary, which it created in the first place.
I also welcome the North-South Ministerial Council meeting that will take place in the next two weeks. A very important issue I want pushed at this level is the local cross-Border trade and economy and how towns such as Omeath, which are between two large towns, have been abandoned and left behind because their hinterland is in the North. This is replicated throughout the Border region. A local practical plan has been approved in the context of the M1 corridor and it takes into consideration the importance of the all-Ireland economy of Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry and beyond. We need this pushed at the North-South Ministerial Council.
I also want to raise the issue of Carlingford Lough not being left behind any longer. It is an incredible tourism location. At local level, my Fianna Fáil and SDLP colleagues and I have been trying to push the lough, the Mourne Mountains and the Cooley Mountains as one location. We have a beautiful national resource waiting there and we are not embracing it. We need investment in particular on the Narrow Water bridge, greenway investments and a real cross-Border co-operation tourism plan.
I join Senator O'Reilly in asking the Leader to facilitate a rolling debate on Covid-19 from a number of perspectives. In particular, it is imperative that Ministers come before the House in advance of the stimulus plan so we can have an input into it aside from being asked for our ideas and suggestions.
I concur with Senator Mullen regarding the issue of Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is important that we have a debate on our one China policy. In particular, it is important that we have a debate on the human rights abuses being inflicted by the Chinese Communist Party. It is very important. Our one-China policy is something we should look at and debate in advance of assuming our seat on the UN Security Council.
I ask that assistance be given today to people who have paid in good faith for holidays. I have been speaking with many people who booked holidays prior to the advice on non-essential travel. People are being asked by the Government not to travel but if the airlines depart, people will lose their money. It is important that we assist people who have worked hard and saved to book and pay for holidays with tour operators and travel agents.I ask that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport be invited to the House to discuss this matter.
I wish the Leader well in her role and thank her for her work so far. I also thank members of the staff in the Houses for their courtesy to us in these difficult times. It is important that we sit in the Houses of the Oireachtas on these hallowed grounds rather than in the convention centre. I hope we can do that as a Parliament. That is not a slight on the Convention Centre Dublin, but these are the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The past 24 hours have been a whirlwind for students and the education sector. Yesterday saw the launch of the further education and training, FET, strategy, which I warmly welcome. I look forward to working with the Minister and the further education sector on vital issues relating to upskilling, training and skills. Yesterday, too, the Labour Party launched its July stimulus which called for significant investment in retraining, upskilling and lifelong learning to provide people with real work opportunities. Many of us are concerned about the impact the Covid-19 crisis is going to have on jobs, so we must ensure that people are ready for the challenge ahead. We had a great moment for further education and I am optimistic about the new Minister driving that Department forward.
On the other hand, however, we had a quite abysmal situation yesterday with the revelation that the leaving certificate results will be delayed until 7 September. This revelation only occurred because my party colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, asked the Minister a direct question about when the results would be issued. Incredibly, she did not answer it and instead it emerged two hours later in a press release. There was a desperate lack of consultation on this. The Irish Second-Level Students' Union, the national body for students, was not consulted about it, which is absolutely incredible. One would think that students were not our future. I am worried that this is a sign of things to come. What engagement occurred with key stakeholders such as the higher education institutions, the further education sector, parents and teachers?
Frankly, it is unacceptable that this has happened. I am worried about the Minister declining to answer that question. I reiterate the call from this House for the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House to answer a number of questions. I also echo the call from my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, for that Minister to come to the Dáil on Tuesday to answer questions about the delay, why she failed to inform the Oireachtas, and what stakeholders were consulted about this. I hope this is not a sign of things to come for the education sector in the future.
I wish to echo the sentiments expressed this morning, which some Members might have heard, by John Horan, the president of the GAA. I have a background in the GAA and a number of Members have a good knowledge about clubs and county grounds. In my case, I have seen games in Cusack Park in Mullingar, Westmeath, attended by up to 15,000 people. The GAA has been more than responsible during this Covid crisis and to say that we think it could not manage 500 people in that scenario is regrettable. I presume with the Covid measures we must have one brush sweeps all, but there are certain other scenarios. In the case of the Phoenix Park we have seen many photographs of crowds gathering publicly on different occasions and at weekends and enjoying themselves. In a number of the scenarios they had alcohol and barbecues in outdoor areas. This scenario would be very secure and the GAA would certainly play its part. I have no doubt that it would look at all safety measures possible to ensure it is safe for the patrons. Most of these grounds are on more than seven acres and it is hard to believe that games could not go ahead in county grounds. It would give a little chink of light to people who have endured all the Covid measures so far. As I said, I echo the sentiments of the president of the GAA, John Horan.
During this crisis we have seen many examples throughout the country of people being creative and communities coming together. Musicians have performed in parks, greens and housing estates.I ask the Leader to call on the Minister with responsibility for heritage and culture to create a day of recognition of all these different initiatives that helped people in the darkest days of this pandemic. I think of one example in my area, Clahane, County Clare, where all the young people have painted beautiful sea stones. Some Members might have heard Luka Bloom, a fellow constituent of mine who lives in Liscannor. He has written a song, "The Beauty of Everyday Things", and the video that goes with the song contains pictures of the sea stones that were painted by young people in particular who used their creativity. My secretary Edel's daughter, Sarah Reidy, painted a number of these beautiful sea stones. This helped people to express themselves and gave them an outlet and something different for them to come together to celebrate: the idea of everyday things being beautiful, the new reality in which people appreciate the simple things in life that they may not have experienced or appreciated before. That absolute power of positive energy out there needs to be recognised by the State when the pandemic is over because it has enriched many people and assisted them in getting through these difficult, dark days.
Finally, I agree with and share the Cathaoirleach's sentiments in thanking the staff of this House, who are doing a remarkable job under very difficult circumstances.
The State Claims Agency has not exactly crowned itself in glory in recent years, when citizens of this State have found themselves having to take legal action against a Department. I understand the role of the State Claims Agency in protecting the resources of the State and ensuring that every claim is scrutinised to its absolute maximum. I cannot understand, however, how the State Claims Agency and Departments are allowed to ignore the orders of the Supreme Court of this land. I am not talking about the merits or demerits of the case - that is a matter for the Judiciary - but there is a case ongoing against the Air Corps relating to chemicals. The case was taken by one individual, a former member of the Air Corps. The outcome of the case will have major implications for other people who have served in the Air Corps and were subjected to, or working with, the chemicals involved. The Supreme Court has ordered discovery of documents, and that discovery has not been met. The excuse being used at the moment, I understand, is Covid-19, but the order was a year ago, before there was ever such thing as Covid-19. We have seen how the State Claims Agency has put innocent people and people struggling with their health through the wringer. Is it hoping they will die before any action takes place? Is it hoping witnesses will die? This is outrageous. It falls to this House not to get involved in what goes on in the Four Courts but to make damn sure that those who work for the State comply with the orders of the courts at the very least. That is not a lot to ask, and whichever Minister is responsible for the State Claims Agency should be brought before this House to explain why it is that it can do what it is doing. We have seen what happened regarding cervical cancer and various other areas. It is bloody well outrageous.
Today marks a significant milestone in Irish sport, with competitive action recommencing after nearly four months of lockdown. This is very much welcome for the mental and physical health of the nation. Owing, however, to the pause on phase 4 of the roadmap, the limit on attendance at outdoor sports events remains 200, to include all persons at the venue, instead of 500, as had been hoped for. NPHET has adopted a one-size-fits-all approach when this situation clearly is not one size. Crowds are gathering in parks, on beaches and in public places in groups of well in excess of the 200 permitted for sporting events. One need only look at Dundrum Town Centre, where people are 19 times more likely to contract the virus. The centre has a capacity of 6,000 people, while in my local club, Seán Connolly's in Longford, we could host more than 250 people around our pitch safely, adhering to the guidelines. Through its volunteers, the GAA has been to the forefront of the fight against the pandemic all over the country but especially in rural Ireland. The association has led the way in the development of a safe return to play protocol for teams, which has been shared by other sporting organisations. The protocol includes the completion by all players of a Covid-19 e-learning module, which over 200,000 people have completed, and a questionnaire and confirmation of a person's health status, which over 500,000 members have completed so far through the GAA website. The GAA has also not reopened dressing rooms. All of this proves that the GAA, by being embedded in the community, understands the risks involved and knows how to manage them. These measures have been designed to minimise risk and have been successful so far.
There should be allowances for sporting bodies such as the GAA to apply for an increase in the numbers allowed to attend matches in circumstances where appropriate control measures are in place. As part of the return to play guidelines, bodies such as the GAA have insisted on keeping spectators and participants separate from each other, and there is no interaction between those inside and outside of the game. The GAA and other bodies took a huge leap of faith in returning to action and did so for the benefit of their communities. While it would be great if the proposed 500 spectators could be revisited for sports, allowing these clubs to interpret the figure at outdoor sport gatherings to mean 200 in addition to those on the field would be of immediate importance and a great message from the Government. That would allow for a further minimum of 120 people to attend games and support the clubs and volunteers that have given so much to their communities during this pandemic.
I fully support the sentiments expressed by Senator Black regarding people in the arts sector, particularly the music industry. She puts the case very well. Due to my past involvement with media and so on, I have been dealing with representatives of those groups over recent weeks. I do not mean to repeat everything Senator Black said, but we must remember that those people are definitely going to be at the very end of the line. That should be remembered. They are facing a very bleak autumn and winter so something needs to be done for them.
I also support the sentiments expressed by Senator Mullen. Human rights are extremely important and I very much support him on that.
The most important point I want to raise is the situation of Bord na Móna and ESB workers, particularly in Lanesborough in the Longford-Roscommon area and Shannonbridge on the Offaly-Galway border. Today is the closing date for the just transition fund of €11 million, which is good and welcome. I assure the Leader and others that some very exciting projects are coming under that. They have been submitted and I hope the funding will come forward for them. I think the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has the most responsibility for this area and it is important that he comes to the House and lays out clear guidelines for the future of that region. I ask the Leader to organise that. Bord na Móna was the lifeline of that region for 70 years. For 70 years, communities were build around it and those people cannot be thrown on the scrap heap now. This is a very important issue in our party and the Green Party and Fine Gael have mentioned it as well. I ask everybody, no matter what part of the country they are from, to remember that area and those people because if they do not get jobs and proper support, it will become a very bleak part of the country.
I raise the announcement by the Minister for Education regarding the leaving certificate results of 60,000 students, which has also been noted by other Members. I am very concerned by the announcement and the lack of joined-up thinking. This morning, I received several phone calls from constituents in west Cork through my office in Bandon who are due to attend Clonakilty Agricultural College. The closing date for them to accept their place in the college is 21 August, which is before the leaving certificate results come out. They are supposed to start their course in Clonakilty on 7 September, the date the leaving certificate results will be published. There are major anomalies in this system. We need clarity and a joined-up plan regarding third level institutions, whether agricultural colleges, institutes of technology or universities.There is great confusion now. I am in this area and I have received many phone calls regarding this issue. There is great confusion in the agricultural community regarding agricultural colleges. People need a pathway and it is not there. The Minister needs to clarify this issue and she needs to do that in the next few hours because parents, children and teachers do not know exactly what they must do. I have students who might have to accept a successful application and who might then get a better offer. That is unacceptable, because if those students accept the offer made for the agricultural application, then their CAO forms falls. Clarity on this issue and a change in process is required in the next few days.
I strongly criticise the decision of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, to delay the issuing of the results of the leaving certificate until 7 September. It was supposed to be mid-August. Students have been left high and dry as the Department stumbles from crisis to crisis. Even more unanswered questions remain after the Minister's interview on the "Morning Ireland" programme this morning. It is astonishing that the Minister stated that she did not answer questions in the Dáil because she wanted to consult stakeholders first, yet we have learned that the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, has not been consulted at all. Primary stakeholders, young people and their families, have not been consulted.
While the Minister has stated that CAO and UCAS applications will be facilitated, there remains a lack of clarity for students who may be considering study in other jurisdictions. I am thinking about the North, Dundee and Aberdeen, for example. We need real clarity, therefore, on how the appeals process for results will work, especially given the tight timelines for CAO offers at the beginning of the academic year, as has been mentioned.
Most disappointing is the Minister's failure to acknowledge the issue of families and students finding accommodation. That is no paper exercise. It involves significant financial commitments and this revised timeline adds to the stress involved. I echo other voices in this House and state that we need the Minister to come to these Houses. Sinn Féin has made this call several times since last night and we will do so until the Minister gives clarity to young people and their families.
Before I turn to individual queries, I want to let the House know that several debates have been secured, the most important one now, I think, involving the Minister for Education and Skills on Tuesday, 28 July. The original debate was sought to discuss the reopening of our primary and secondary schools and the school transport issue. Considering the announcements made yesterday, however, regarding the unfortunate delay in the leaving certificate results for our students, questions on that issue might now need to be put to the Minister. The other debate concerns the July stimulus package and it will take place on the same day. We are hoping to do a block of several hours in the morning on one topic and then several more hours on the other topic in the afternoon. The other outstanding debate that I had hoped to secure is on tourism. I am still pursuing that before we rise for the summer break in August, I do not have a date secured yet, but we will continue to liaise with the Minister's office. As soon as I have that date, I will let the Members know.
It is a good idea that we have a rolling hour or 90 minutes every week on the current issues concerning how the country is dealing with the Covid-19 virus. We all know each week brings up a different issue or additional anomaly. I concur with the comments made by John Horan yesterday. He was devastated and gutted, as were probably all our local clubs, whether GAA or soccer, regarding advancing the great sociability that sport provides to our communities in towns and villages. I know they are gutted by these developments.
I also know that the hospitality sector is on its knees in the context of this week's announcements. Our transport industry, as Senator Keogan has pointed out, is equally as frustrated. The only reassurance I can give to everybody in this House and to the public is that the decisions made on Monday were the best decisions for our public health and our common good. No decision is made lightly. The R number that Professor Philip Nolan spoke about last night is now in a precarious position.
Notwithstanding arguments made here yesterday concerning the virus being more prevalent in certain parts of the country, people are resourceful, and when places are reopened, they will tend to travel to those hotspots. The decisions being made are being made genuinely in the best interests of our public health and our good health.The economic ramifications of those decisions have been felt by hundreds of thousands of people and many thousands of families. I hope the July stimulus package next week and the new task force on aviation that will be established will give results and resolve to those industries that are genuinely struggling. I know they are struggling and we hear it. We will have the July stimulus debate in the coming weeks. It will give us some succour.
Individual requests were made for debates especially around human rights. That debate is obviously needed. I am unsure whether we will get it in between now and the end of July but I want to make it a priority for the beginning of September when we return.
The North-South Ministerial Council will go ahead on 31 July. Members raised some pertinent issues about some relevant legislation that has been passed by both Houses in Ireland but has not been passed by Westminster. That should be raised on 31 July. The agreements and commitments made in the Stormont House Agreement need to be fulfilled by all the bodies that signed up to it. I agree totally and I would expect an update on 31 July.
I have no wish to keep picking on Senator Flynn but this week is Traveller Pride week. She is incredibly welcome. I concur with the Cathaoirleach's sentiments and I hope it becomes far more normal to hear her voice in the House and on our national airwaves. It is a Traveller Pride week like no other. All our virtual festivals are taking place in a different way to the way we would normally celebrate. Senator Flynn is now here to give voice to that celebration. I believe the special committee we had which did such good work during the term of the last Dáil and Seanad should be re-established. We received a report yesterday on how the committees are going to be established. It referred to the ones that will be established between now and the end of July and the others that will be established in September. The work that was done is vital and much needed. Although that committee will not be re-established between now and the end of the month, it is one of the committees that needs to be established at an early stage in September. We should do that at the next meeting if it is possible.
I think we will establish a rolling debate on Covid-19 given that we have four Bills to pass next week and three Bills to potentially pass the week after that as well as two full days of statements. The rolling debates and Commencement matters will probably now be postponed until we come back in the first week when we return in September, if everyone is okay with that. The Commencement matters have been reinstated but with written replies. I have requested from all Ministers and protocol sections that this be established immediately so that people can start putting in Commencement matters as of today.
My final comment is for Senator Craughwell. I am not sure who is responsible for the State Claims Agency. My head tells me that it is the Minister for Finance but I will find out. We will request a response with regard to the questions raised on complying with the requests of Supreme Court judges.
The Chair opened our discussion this afternoon by talking about the anniversary and commemoration day this Saturday for Nelson Mandela. It is a global call for action for everyone to celebrate the idea that each individual has the power to change something about people's lives and to make a difference in all of our communities. We have an opportunity. There has been considerable talk in the House in recent weeks about hate speech. We saw it yesterday evening when people on social media were talking about how they feel and how they are maligned. I mentioned here yesterday that sometimes I find it strange to see human beings behaving in such a base manner to other human beings. When Nelson Mandela was here he said that no human being is born hating another person because of the colour of their skin, their background or their religion. He said people have to learn how to hate, but if they can learn how to hate then they can certainly be taught how to love. He said love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. I really believe that we have an opportunity in this new Seanad to do something about hate speech and to put it firmly on our Statute Book. I appeal for everyone's support to help us to make that happen and make it a reality in the near future.