Wednesday, 2 December 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Planning and Development Bill 2020 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 3.30 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall in regard to amendments include only those set down or accepted by Government; No. 2, Private Members' business, the Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland) Bill 2018 – Committee Stage, to be taken at 4 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 1, whichever is the later, and to adjourn after 60 minutes if not previously concluded; and No. 3, statements on the technological university agenda, to be taken at 6 p.m. and to conclude at 8 p.m., with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and a Minister to be given no less than six minutes to reply to the debate.
I want to talk about the general data protection regulation, GDPR, which normally nods people off to sleep, unless they are like me and get very excited about it. When Max Schrems took Facebook to court here in Ireland, a decision was made which brought about a change in the obligations on companies. Until then, if a company was exporting data out of the European Union or a European Union-aligned country with an adequacy decision, all it had to do was have standard contractual clauses and other mechanisms to ensure there was a standard of data compliance. Since the Schrems decision, a company that is exporting data has the obligation not only to ensure that the recipient of those data is up to an EU standard but that the country the recipient is in also is up to that standard. We are a few weeks from Brexit and, at this time, it looks as if the UK is going to be what is considered a third country if we have no deal, and we also have the Schrems decision.
I am looking for a debate and discussion in the Chamber at some point to at least bring to public attention these hidden consequences. The Schrems decision would have happened anyway but its implications with regard to Brexit and the EU, and whether we have a deal or not, are naturally being overshadowed by larger and more serious issues. However, it is also a very serious issue and I raised it in the context of the Brexit debate yesterday. We have a duty to have a discussion with the public in this regard because there is a burden on small companies, and this applies even within the Houses. If we think about it, our email system is on an American-based and owned company system. The ramifications of this are enormous and yet we are not really talking about it and it has fallen off the agenda, even if that is for very good reasons. I ask for time for us to expose, discuss and ventilate all of these consequential obligations that are occurring at the moment.
Following the controversy over a tweet from Deputy Brian Stanley, who I consider to be a good and decent man, I have thought long and hard about what I am about to say this morning. In 40 years of the Northern Irish Troubles, over 3,500 people were killed in conflict; 52% were civilians, 32% were members of the British security forces and 16% were members of paramilitary groups. There is no hierarchy in murder. All were needless, all were brutal. Many victims were simply people going about their daily business, just like other Members and I do on a daily basis. Was the murder of Pat Finucane in 1989 any more terrible than the senseless killing of Jean McConville in 1972? Did the Ballymurphy killings by the Parachute Regiment justify the Narrow Water killings by the Provisional IRA?
Collusion is dealt with in the University of Portland's Pilot Scholars report on "British Collusion in the Irish War on Terror". It analyses the legal and ethical implications of deploying collusion tactics to deter terrorism. In it, historians Ed Moloney and Matthew Teague both discovered by their independent research that British efforts at collusion were arguably illegal and morally unethical. Both found that the British authorities would go to extreme lengths to maintain undercover agents' identities, even to the extent of allowing agents to kill innocent civilians or other intelligence agents in order to remain undercover. British intelligence adopted counterterrorism measures, which included the recruitment and handling of Provisional IRA and UDA informants in order to infiltrate the paramilitary groups' command networks.
This is collusion. There was state collusion and state-sponsored collusion. The lawyer Pat Finucane was shot dead in front of his wife and children in Belfast by a UDA hit squad which included British police and members of the intelligence service. A public inquiry into this senseless killing has been denied. However, was he the only one killed in this way? Is his family the only family entitled to a public inquiry? Members of the security forces were gunned down by members of the IRA. If we believe the evidence above that I have already averted to, some of those were British agents. I believe there will never be a public inquiry. No government anywhere in the world would allow such an inquiry for to do so would be to expose them as terrorists themselves, similar to the brutal regimes they condemn publicly.
Let us not forget there was collusion by the security forces in the Republic. Judge Smithwick adverts to the collusion between members of the Garda and the IRA, which is most regrettable. It was only a limited case but nonetheless, it happened. If we accept there will never be a public inquiry, then we must demand the establishment of a truth commission with a full amnesty for all witnesses. We can no longer allow the pain of what went on in Northern Ireland for 40 years to contaminate future generations. Here in the Republic, we must move on. We cannot demand that Sinn Féin participate in government in the North while at the same time describing it as being of dubious credentials in the South. I have had to put aside my own deep personal hurt with respect to the terrible intimidation my mother and father were subjected to in 1974 as a result of my service in the Royal Irish Rangers. I have to move on. We have to move on. Here in the Republic, we must move away from the brand "Sinn Féin-IRA". We must see Sinn Féin as just another political party born out of a conflict, just like Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.I and all who seek full reconciliation must learn to stop thinking of Sinn Féin as being run by an army council and saying, "They have not gone away, you know". I assure the House I will find that very difficult at times. For its part, Sinn Féin must learn just how deeply offensive are some of the poorly thought out statements, comments and tweets it makes. It too must move into the normal political discourse like the rest of us.
I know the Deputy Leader and the Cathaoirleach have done quite a lot of work in this area themselves. We must move on. We must grab peace and the only way we can do that is to treat each and every person with the respect we want ourselves. Believe me, I think back to 1974 and how my mother was treated at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. in the morning, being woken out of her bed to be told I was shot, I would be shot or they were coming to get me. It was not something trivial because they did take one of my colleagues out of his house in Derry and shot him in Donegal. I find it deeply hurtful when I see statements such as that made by Deputy Brian Stanley. I spoke to him about it and I fully understand now what he was trying to say. However, me fully understanding what he was trying to say in a 180 character tweet is not good enough. Sinn Féin must stop that and we for our part must try to put the deep feelings we have about what went on in this country over 40 years behind us and we must learn to grab peace. If we do not we will go back to where we came from.
I thank Senator Craughwell for those words. I am sure they are deeply felt.
I want to raise an issue raised by fellow Members of the House in recent sittings and in light of a recent CSO report, that is, the social impact Covid is having on our society. As a public representative, I have noticed an alarming rise in the number of people seeking support and I have also been approached by many people worried about family members and friends who are unsure of where to turn for help. The recent CSO survey referred to was released a number of days ago and has confirmed some of what I and other public representatives are seeing up and down the country. The percentage of people feeling depressed or downhearted has more than doubled in the past seven months, from 5.5% in April to 11.5% in November. The percentage of people who felt alone all or most of the time has more than doubled, from 6.8% in April to 13.7% in November this year. However, this is not felt equally across our society. For example, females are far more likely, at 17% compared with males at 9.9%, to be feeling lonely all or most of the time. While more than one in four of our young people in the age bracket of 18 to 34 also feel the burden of this loneliness. With numbers doubling so quickly, many people who never had to access support now find themselves dealing with a system that was struggling and overstretched before this pandemic happened. We must act now and make support for these people readily available and reach out to help all who need it.
We must also make extra funds available to organisations that now find themselves on the front line of this new crisis. We know failure to do so has had devastating consequences for so many in our communities. We must also invest in local sports, arts groups and youth clubs, which engage with so many and provide an essential outlet in communities. We know making human connections is a key part of well-being. We must move away from judging the success of our nation solely on GDP or how many multinationals we can attract to set up operations here. Success for our country should be making Ireland a great place to make a living and making it a great place to live.
Recently, we welcomed the news that a vaccine is coming closer to reality but the legacy of the pandemic may prove much more troublesome to cure and leave a lasting impact on our communities for many years to come. Now is the time to reset our priorities as a nation and put people first. Other countries have already started this process and now we must follow. I ask the House to support the online campaign for the State to pay the €100 registration fee for nurses and midwives. The letters regarding their annual registration to the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland arrived yesterday, as I am sure we are all aware. Given the incredible and unselfish work our nurses and midwives carried out on the front line over recent months, the Government paying this registration would be a very important acknowledgement of this work and how important our nurses and midwives are to us all.
With regard to remote working hubs, sometimes bureaucracy and multidisciplinary departments make it very confusing for people. I want to clearly outline something today for my colleagues after a meeting this morning with the Department of Rural and Community Development. One of its top civil servants, Dr. Stjohn O'Connor, clarified for us some of the information on remote working hubs because we had seen some announcements in the budget. Every county in Ireland has a broadband officer, which is good to know. Whether with regard to a social enterprise, a village hall, an old Garda station or a group of people who want a Wi-Fi hub in their area, people should go to their local authority and find the broadband officer. The civil servant also pointed out that they have not reached capacity with the money and there is still money available for these broadband connection points, BCPs. I have been hearing about BCPs and Wi-Fi hubs for ages and I have discovered the difference is that BCPs are in areas with absolutely no Wi-Fi whatsoever. If a village or area has no Wi-Fi, it can apply through the broadband officer in the local authority to get funding to set up a place where people can go.
Apart from my obsession with rural water schemes, I believe that rural broadband is the second key requirement for surviving and thriving in rural Ireland and having regional balance. We have heard of many people moving from big cities to rural areas where they have good rural broadband services. Everyone in Dublin will know it is so much cheaper in rural areas and instead of having rural schools and rural shops closing down, this is a real opportunity for these schools, small shops and small businesses to thrive again if we can have these rural Wi-Fi hubs. I want to draw everybody's attention today to the fact that now is the time to carpe diem. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is strongly in support of this issue. She put €5 million into the budget because she knows it is one of the key issues for regional rebalance. Everybody, including the Government, has always been speaking about regional rebalancing and now, because of Covid, remote working is becoming a norm forever more. We will never go back to the way it was. A total of 84% of people who have had to work remotely because of Covid have said they would happily continue to do so. I urge the entire House to support this huge investment. Let us get it all spent. Let us apply for it in every local authority area and let us get rural Ireland back on its feet again.
Two years ago, the collaborative forum recommended that health and well-being supports be put in place for survivors of institutional abuse and their families. The Government finally committed to rolling out these supports from the beginning of this year. However, no supports were delivered. Only after the recent records debacle did it announce survivors can avail of counselling through the national counselling service. This is not good enough. Time and again, survivors and families have said they need a dedicated point of support for their specific emotional needs. They also need to be signposted to the social and economic state supports. This is what the victim support service in the North offers. Through the Deputy Leader, I urge the Ministers relevant to care and support for victims to engage with their Executive colleagues in the North on how a similar bespoke service can be rolled out here in this State.
I welcome the roll-out of the Pfizer vaccine in the North. I say this with great hope. I am sure it has come as a great announcement of hope for many people, not least the most vulnerable and at risk in our society. It has to be those people who are most vulnerable and most at risk who need to be prioritised, North and South, in the roll-out of any vaccine. While welcoming the news, it seems I will get it before all of the Members so they should keep an eye on me. I very much encourage people to heed the scientific and medical advice to put aside the conspiracy theories, some of which are quite dangerous and very unsettling and concerning.There is a specific role for us. in terms of political leadership, to ensure we face that sentiment down in order to make sure that people avail of the proper vaccines and that this is rolled out as soon as possible in the most effective way.
In saying that, I echo what has been said many times in this Chamber, namely, that we cannot afford to let our guard down. Christmas is approaching. While restrictions have been relaxed in this State and while there may also be a change in restrictions in the North in the coming days and weeks, we must ensure that we try to have as normal a Christmas as possible. We all accept that it will not be a normal Christmas and we have to act responsibly in that regard. I encourage people, in welcoming the hopeful and positive announcements in recent days and weeks on vaccines, to remember to be píosa ciallmhar. Níl i bhfad eile uainn and once we get through Christmas and the roll-out of this vaccine, hopefully we will see a significant change for the better for everyone.
On Monday last, I was disappointed when the British Government rejected the calls to carry out a full and thorough inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. This rejection just compounds the pain and trauma of the Finucane family. Geraldine Finucane said it was an insult that the investigation was refused. I cannot begin to imagine the pain experienced by the family and friends of Pat Finucane since his assassination. In February of last year, the UK Supreme Court ruled that previous investigations into the murder were not effective and fell short of international human rights standards. The British Government previously appointed individuals to examine Pat Finucane's killing, but nothing has provided his family with the full disclosure it is believed only a public inquiry can deliver. We must have a full inquiry in order to achieve justice, restore confidence and promote reconciliation.
Yesterday, the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, chaired by Deputy O’Dowd, called for:
... the immediate establishment of a full, independent, public judicial inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane, as recommended by Judge Cory, which would enjoy the full co-operation of the Finucane family and command the respect and confidence of all of the people on the island of Ireland and all persons committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law worldwide.
There needs to be full disclosure of all the collusion between paramilitaries and the security forces in killings and it is only when this is done that there will be any hope of restoring confidence in the rule of law and in the administration of justice. The reluctance of the British Government to allow this inquiry is understandable, as the use of murder gangs is a well known counter-insurgency tactic used in its colonies all over the world and the knowledge of this collusion is believed to have gone to the top of the British Government. According to the Canadian judge, Peter Cory, this was known to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
While this campaign continues to demand a full inquiry, we must keep the unified spirit in this House and in the Government alive and move forward with the courage the Finucane family have had to dig deep to find for over 30 years. In the words of Geraldine Finucane: "The questions that demand answers around Pat’s murder are not going away, and neither is our campaign for truth and justice."We must continue to move forward with our best efforts to finally bring justice to the Finucane family who have suffered enough. This is paramount. I commend the outstanding bravery of Geraldine Finucane and her family in opening up their past traumas time and again. They have continued to courageously campaign for public justice for over 30 years.
I would like to raise my disappointment at the reconfirmation by AIB that it plans to reduce its workforce by 1,500 people by 2023. Not only is this hugely disappointing for a huge amount of staff but it is also disappointing for people who use AIB's banking services locally. The reduction is not only of people but also of branches. It is closing down its Crumlin Cross branch and moving it to Crumlin Road, to the detriment of many elderly people who would use AIB's face-to-face services on a daily basis.
What is most alarming about this is that the bank seems to forget that the State bailed it out to the tune of nearly €20 billion when it was in a huge crisis. The State currently owns approximately 70% of the bank. Therefore, this announcement goes against the theme and the sentiment we are all living through that we are in this together. It is the wrong time to make these announcements and it is unfair on the people working in AIB. We should have a debate in this House on the matter. The Financial Services Union is saying that the timing is wrong. There has been little talk or consultation on the nature of the redundancies. Due to the fact that the State has such a large stake in the bank, it is paramount that this matter be debated in the House.
I previously asked for a debate with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on the issue of greenways, blueways and walkways. I welcome recent Government funding for projects across the country and this builds on an investment provided over recent years for projects such as the great western railway in the Deputy Leader's county, the Mullingar to Athlone greenway and the Clifden to Recess greenway. The recent An Bord Pleanála decision on the greenway in south Kerry has been welcome and it was regarded as a test case by many local authorities that have projects that are stuck in limbo across the country. I welcome that decision and I regret that negotiation failed prior to taking the ultimate decision to go to a compulsory purchase order, which always has to be the last step.
Progress has been painfully slow on some projects in my county of Galway and my area, from Galway city to Moycullen to Oughterard. Funding was announced for this project in 2014 but a planning permission application has still not been lodged for the simple reason that the county council has not been able to gain access to all of the lands involved. The potential for this project is huge in the context of commuting and tourism. The potential is huge for people who work at National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, or University Galway Hospital, for example, to be able to cycle to work and, similarly, for students attending NUIG and GMIT to be able to attend lectures by cycling in. There is also a tourism potential for the greenway as the gateway to Connemara. I ask for a debate on this to explore what the Department intends to do to ensure that county councils can access land to complete environmental reports and to lodge planning applications to allow these projects to be delivered.
I thank the Deputy Leader for setting out the proposed Order of Business for today. One of the issues I want to raise relates to persons over 65 years of age. Members will have received numerous emails this week to the effect that people of 65 years of age are obliged to apply for jobseeker's allowance until they are 66 years of age and qualify for the State pension. Senators will recall that during the elections and the political promises, there was a promise on an interim payment that seems to be forgotten, and that this would issue for the period between a person turning 65 and 66. We know that jobseeker's allowance is means tested and this is presenting a problem for many people who have small savings, but this is after a life of work. When one has small savings, one is means-tested. Therefore, retiring at 65 years of age with a retirement lump sum or some small savings means that one's jobseeker's allowance payment will be reduced below €203 per week, to take account of one's savings. That is a problem. There is a solution, however, and that is that the jobseeker's allowance should be paid for the year between someone turning 65 and 66 but it should not be means-tested. There is an end to it and it is only a period of one year. For people who have worked hard in this State, many of whom had no option but to go at 65 for health, contractual or other reasons or commitments, we should show some gesture of goodwill and support. We should have the allowance but it should not be means-tested for that period of one year. I ask if we could organise some sort of debate on that or tag it on to a debate on social protection, whenever the relevant Minister is in the House.
I appeal to Senators who are available to come to the House for the Report Stage debate on the Planning and Development Bill 2020, which is taking place today.It addresses a key issue, on which we are not poles apart. It is the issue of the mandatory requirement on local authorities to hold a public meeting to consult and engage with the citizens they represent. We had a robust, good and healthy debate on this and there was a difference of opinion but I hope all Senators can agree to support the view that the citizen should have a right to such public meetings enshrined in the legislation. I do not want an unelected executive to decide on public consultation. For that matter, I do not want to interfere with the role of councillors in that process either. A mandatory requirement to have public consultation on city and county development plans should be enshrined in the Planning and Development Bill 2020, which we are finalising today.
I agree with the concerns about data expressed by Senator Seery Kearney. We had that discussion during the Brexit debate yesterday. It is also worth reflecting on the important testimony given today by Senator Craughwell. I agree with the concerns he expressed.
I will raise two issues on which I have sought debates a number of times. The first is the recent Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, report. I focused last week on the issue of air quality. Senators will have seen last night that RTÉ highlighted the urgency of introducing a clean air Act. We need an urgent debate on that issue. The second issue, on which the Leas-Chathaoirleach has also sought a debate, is the question of Poland and Hungary, particularly their treatment of minorities. I will not comment on events in Brussels over the weekend but it goes to show that some of the individuals who are oppressing LGBT minorities have a lot to answer for. There is also a question around the position of Fine Gael continuing to allow Fidesz to remain as a member of the European People's Party.
I seek a debate on the report this morning from the Central Statistics Office showing unemployment levels rising and a youth jobless rate of 47%. It is understandable in a pandemic that this would happen but the concern is that if youth unemployment becomes a long-term challenge, we will risk alienating large groups of young people if we do not address it. The Government has invested significantly, and rightly, in education and training. We need a debate on youth unemployment, the supports available to young people and how young people are coping with this pandemic. A rate of youth unemployment of 47% is not sustainable in the long term and reducing it must be a priority.
I raise an issue that has been raised a number of times, namely, cases involving multinational utilities companies, such as Eir and Sky, where people try to break a contract or stop making payments for one reason or another. On telephone services, I have been contacted by someone who has a number of mobile phones and is trying to eliminate some of the mobile contracts but cannot get through to Eir. Other people cannot get through to Sky. They cannot cancel contracts and the money continues to be taken out of their bank accounts. In some cases, people who have cancelled direct debits are being fleeced with bank charges for not honouring a contract. Something needs to be done to address this, whether that is bringing in the relevant Minister or contacting ComReg. ComReg has a major role to play in this and it should make an example of some of these companies. How does it deal with such issues? Does it deal mainly with big issues? What about the ordinary person on the street? Does ComReg have any time for the ordinary person on the street who is frustrated because he or she cannot contact a utility? Some of these cases date back to January, February and March and the individuals in question still cannot contact the company that provides the utility, telephone service or whatever. I ask that the Acting Leader bring a Minister to the House to deal with this issue or that we contact ComReg and send a strong message from this House that it must deal with this issue.
I want to take a moment to reflect on an interview I heard on radio yesterday. I do not know if anyone else heard it. It was with three young carers under the age of 18. They were brilliant, kind young people who had taken on a role far beyond their years. The interview came about on foot of new research from Family Carers Ireland. The report suggests that almost 67,000 young people in Ireland, aged between ten and 17 years, provide regular unpaid care for a loved one. That is a large number of young people. The census in 2016 estimated there were 3,000 such carers. The estimate, based on this research, of 67,000 young carers shows there is an enormous discrepancy in the numbers. It is suspected that the reason the census figure is lower is that parents have to fill out the census on behalf of young people.
The Family Carers Ireland report was done in conjunction with researchers in NUI Galway. As I said, approximately 13.3% of young people between ten and 17 years are in a caring role. The report also indicated a number of issues around emotional health and well-being in this group, and lower life satisfaction than their peers. One third of these young carers reported being bullied at school and one in four young carers said they went to school or bed hungry because there was not enough food at home.
We urgently need to address the discrepancies in the national estimate of young carers and this issue needs to be on the national policy agenda. I am making a request that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth come to the House to discuss the issue of young carers and what supports we can provide for them. It is also important that this issue is put onto the national agenda and we do not let this slide. One in four of these young carers going to bed hungry is a worryingly high proportion. I ask for a debate on this issue.
We are all well aware of the importance of community employment or CE schemes, particularly in rural areas and villages. The schemes provide significant employment support to day-care centres and crèches, for maintaining graveyards, basic grass-cutting and upkeep of local villages, working with Tidy Towns committees, and maintaining sports grounds, particularly GAA and soccer facilities. They provide an important value-for-money service to communities. It is work that the local authority would not be in a position to do if these schemes did not exist. Additionally, the schemes provide a good outlet, in offering training and activation, and in many cases a social outlet for people who work on the schemes.
Many of the people who work on community employment schemes are reaching the end of their working careers. They have worked hard in construction and other areas. They are not able for the physical work associated with the construction sector but they do very good work for our communities. The criteria that are applied are making it impossible for the schemes to retain these people. At a certain age or after six years, no matter what stage they are at, people are put back on the live register, saving only €20 per week. We have to look at that. For example, a scheme I am very familiar with in County Clare takes in Ballyea, Kilmaley, Lissycasey, Clarecastle, Kilnamona and the Banner GAA. There were 45 people working on the scheme and they did a huge amount in the area. Bit by bit, people have drifted off the scheme and it cannot get new participants. It is not as if those who remained on the scheme were somehow displacing others. The scheme had 45 places and it can now only fill 18 of them. The people who had to leave the scheme and are still under 66 are now at home and the State saves €20 a head per week. We need a debate on that. We need to look at the value to the communities but also to the people affected. Sitting on the dole has a demoralising effect on people between the ages of 58 and 60. They have never been on the dole in their working lives.They are ready and willing to participate in these schemes but the criteria are keeping them out. Everybody is losing as a result. I hope we can have a debate and try to advance this issues.
Large parts of the economy are reopening following a difficult six weeks of lockdown but several sectors are still not permitted to open, which needs to be addressed. I refer particularly to the arts sector, theatres and venues across the country and in my county of Tipperary. I echo what Senator Cummins said yesterday. The arts sector is not about making money; it is about ensuring that engagement is maintained for artists and audiences to keep the sector alive. Dr. Tony Holohan spoke the other day about cinemas being able to open but he did not distinguish between cinemas and theatres. In most people's view and in mine, there is no difference between a cinema and a theatre. Stage schools have not been given the opportunity to reopen, despite successfully opening up during the summer. We need to remember that not every child wants to play sport. Some want to go into theatre and progress that way. There is a feeling within organisations that there is a level of inequality in this. I hope the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, will come in to speak on the issue because there are many good people involved. I am thinking of Clonmel Entertainment and Arts Initiative and many stage groups that are set up to support kids in this regard. I hope something can be done.
Someone spoke about anti-vaccine activists and the need to make sure they do not get the platform they sometimes get. We learned earlier in the year from a newly elected Sinn Féin Deputy who had to take down a tweet saying she did not believe in vaccines for human papillomavirus, HPV. Does the Deputy Leader agree that, as public representatives, we have an obligation to the country to show leadership on this front and not to put up tweets or views that are based on no fact whatsoever?
It seems to be mandatory this week but they are still not accountable. There is a level of responsibility. One of the biggest things we will have to do in 2021 is the delivery of vaccines. Public representatives or anyone else need to be responsible in what they put out, especially on social media.
The more some people tweet, the more the veil slips. I draw the House's attention to the 56 black balloons that hang outside the railings of Leinster House today. They have been placed there by Inner City Helping Homeless, a volunteer organisation dedicated to supporting homeless people in our capital city. The Deputy Leader and I both know that one of the first actions of the new Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage was to establish a high-level task force dedicated to tackling and responding to the homeless crisis that he inherited. That task force is meeting, I understand, weekly and the Minister has secured a record budget of more than €230 million for homeless services next year. However, the reality of those balloons outside is that 56 homeless people have died in our capital city this year. Inner City Helping Homeless do not know and I do not know how many homeless people have died nationally. Their campaign is to ensure homeless people are not forgotten. I do not forget them, my party does not forget them and this Government will not forget them.
I would appreciate if the Deputy Leader would ask the Minister to have the homeless task force examine the provision of homeless services. Hundreds of millions of euro are being provided, there are more than 100 homeless service providers in the capital alone and, yet less than 100 m down Kildare Street are two people sleeping on a porch every night. There is something radically wrong and no life in this city or country should be forgotten. We will not forget them.
I would like to raise an issue that is very important. This year has been tough for many people. Next weekend, and two weeks after that, many men and women around the country will get to play in Croke Park for the first time. Will the Deputy Leader ask the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media if it is possible that their parents and family members be allowed to attend those games? It is not often that people get a chance to play in Croke Park and, when it happens, it should be celebrated with the ones who have put in the toil and sweat to get them to that moment. I would like the Minister and the Taoiseach to consider permitting the parents of those footballers, camogie players and hurlers to attend to those matches. Croke Park holds 80,000 people. We are talking about 200-plus people, that is all. Surely we can manage that. I think it is important. All of us here have not had an opportunity to bring our own parents to the Chamber and some of us have lost parents. If we can, this is a special time for those men and women who will be playing important games and it would be a good, humane and right thing to do to allow the parents to attend those games this weekend and the following weekend.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Fitzpatrick. Every morning that I walk from a hotel to Leinster House, I see people on the streets having slept there overnight and I ask myself why that is with so much money and so many agencies around the city. People down the country who do not like to see people on the streets ask me constantly why they are still there. It is time to look at that and see how we can avoid that situation.
I agree with Senator Hoey regarding young people who are carers. It was a moving report on radio yesterday and we would all subscribe to what she said.
Senator Dooley mentioned the social employment schemes, which are vital to much of the west and mid-west. According to the figures, most of the people on social employment schemes in this country are from that region and they are vital.
As Senator Keogan said, we would like families of people who are playing in Croke Park in all-Ireland finals, male and female, to be there if possible.
The Deputy Leader will have seen me on many occasions speak about the N5. She, Deputy Calleary and myself have fought, as have other Oireachtas Members, for the development of that roadway. There is a €200 million project now many going through County Roscommon from Ballaghaderreen to Scramoge. We are hoping that the contract documents will reach the council shortly. I will briefly mention the towns and villages that are bypassed. A number of businesses lose out, while some do not. A hotel, restaurant or filling station suffers when a town is bypassed. Hardware store, supermarkets or pharmacies do not because they rely on local business. Every time a road is completed, we see there is money in the overall contract to put a piece of art on the national primary route that is bypassed, which costs significant money. However, money is never allocated to do something for the village and town that is bypassed and suffers. To cut to the chase, perhaps we could ask a Minister to come in to discuss this issue and see if we can progress it. I know what is something the Deputy Leader very much supports.
I refer to a topic I have raised previously. Senator Murphy will be familiar with it as well. It is about community groups having to come together to challenge local authorities when it comes to inappropriate planning and locations of transfer stations on sites that force hundreds of trucks through the middle of a town. This is a significant issue for us. I bring it to the House's attention because there is a town that is very united.We are bringing together business groups, clubs and community groups. We have doctors and radiologists who will give a presentation at a public meeting next Wednesday. It is really about highlighting the inappropriate location for this particular development and its impact on the health, safety and future of the town itself.
It is crucial we pay attention to this because, only recently, we had a debate on biodiversity and the loss of habitats. This particular development is in a low-lying floodplain in the River Suck Callows. We have had debates about the loss of habitats and how we are not protecting them. We know there are EU charges against local authorities about the lack of consideration of environmental impacts. All of this is crucial and it is important. Towns and villages should be important to us and we should fight for them. It is difficult when community groups are left to fight this themselves.
I fully endorse the call from my colleague, Senator Dooley, for a debate on community employment schemes. Many of them are the heartbeat of our communities, particularly rural communities. They do a great deal such as organising Tidy Towns, Meals on Wheels, etc. We also need to look at the conditions for scheme supervisors. There has been a long-standing call for a pension scheme for them.
The horticultural industry makes a significant contribution to the economy. It adds €497 million per year to the economy with its employment value nearly the same and its annual exports value at €239 million. It is estimated up to 6,600 people work in this industry with another 11,000 jobs supported in ancillary industries. These are the people who grow our strawberries, mushrooms and nursery plants which are sold on a wholesale basis and supplied to others in the industry.
Only 0.4% of total Irish peatlands are used for horticulture peat harvesting. Since June, peatland owners must apply for planning permission and a licence that will take four to six years. Current peat supplies will run out in July 2021. What are people left to do? Kildare Growers, which I met with over the weekend, has the option of bringing in peat from Lithuania and Holland. It will cost four times more than local peat. When we are talking about protecting our environment, importing peat from Holland or Lithuania at four times the price is ridiculous.
Many of these industries may go out of business. In supporting our own food culture and horticulture, it is important that we have a debate on this with both Ministers involved. There are statutory instruments that could be introduced which could help solve the problem.
Are we ever going to move forward with the actual debate about the post office service itself? Rural Ireland has changed dramatically, particularly over the past eight to ten months. The question about where we are going to put the post office service will be a significant issue that this House will need to debate.
In my part of the world, we could end up with the post offices only available in the major towns while losing a spread of local sub-offices across the entire county. A debate about how we are going to regenerate the post office network and involve it in the psyche of rural regeneration will be a big issue. The online aspect which we have all seen, particularly over the past eight and ten months, is something we need to start looking at with the post offices. With the old idea about them dealing with motor tax and so forth, online has taken up so much of that space. The debate has to look at something really imaginative, like an online hub of which the post office will be part.
For that to happen, a real and meaningful debate in the House is required. We need to have the Minister before us and we need to start thinking outside the box. If the past eight months have shown us anything and how society has changed, it is not about a service one goes to meet. Unfortunately, people do not want to do that now. It is about accessing services. We need to have that debate about how we can get these spaces more active.
I have seen in my part of the world that when one provides high-speed broadband and a central location, people who work from home do not want to spend all five days at home. They want to have the opportunity to go to a space where they can have high-speed broadband which will then tie into the service. The post office service has to be a part of that. We need a genuine debate on how we can regenerate in this area.
I welcome the National Transport Authority's review of its transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, launched last Thursday and which will take in counties Kildare, Wicklow and Meath.
The strategy will set out a policy and a blueprint for the next 20 years. One of the projects included in the review is one for which we have been waiting 20 years already, the Navan rail line. One wonders how much longer we are going to have to wait. I have read the assessment study and its objectives. It refers to undertaking a comprehensive assessment of the benefits of the project, encapsulating economic, environmental and societal benefits. If there is one thing politicians as public representatives can quantify, it is societal benefit from a major infrastructure project such as the Navan rail line.
I asked the previous transport Minister, Shane Ross, to come to Navan to assess this. From the very chair the Deputy Leader is sitting in now, he said he would be down but just not too early in the morning. He never made it across the Liffey. I have much more hope for the current Minister who, in this Chamber on 23 October, said there is real merit in the rail line to Navan and furthering the DART and metro extensions to that area. That is encouraging.
I encourage people to make their submissions to the review before 22 January. Equally, I encourage the Minister, a Green Minister who values public transport, to engage and put a real value on the people's lives in Navan and Meath. He should make the call that it is not just about pounds, shillings and pence but about the societal gain, as well as the gain to families' lives, their workplaces and homes. He must do the right thing because the people cannot wait another 20 years for a review.
In recent times, universities have been confirming that in most, if not all cases, there will be little face-to-face teaching. Instead, they will be relying on online learning. Even that pill-sweetening phrase, "blended learning", seems to have little applicability in reality.
Students are wondering why there is no corresponding reduction in the fees they are required to pay for their courses. This is especially the case considering colleges make so much of what they call the college experience when they justify the large fees students have to pay. I am thinking in particular of postgraduate students. One of them made the point to me that in the case of UCD graduate entry medicine students, 70% of them are withholding what they regard as exorbitant fees. UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School students are lobbying for a 30% reduction in their fees. The postgraduate students in question have been given a €250 rebate. That is practically insignificant when one considers the fees themselves are something of the order of about €18,000.
UCD claims the value of degrees has not been diluted despite the significant values it clearly attributes to the student experience. This is mentioned in its open days, prospectuses, marketing campaigns and so on.However, as students are pointing out, the current value of this so-called "student experience" is close to nil. It seems there is a valid case for the Government to put pressure on universities and say that something meaningful has to be done on the issue of student fees. I know that the decrease in State funding for third level education has led to universities becoming increasingly reliant on student fees but it cannot be acceptable. That situation cannot be allowed to remain unamended when students are having a very different "college experience".
Last week in this House I spoke about the real problem of vaccine scepticism. Today, I want to discuss the need to build vaccine confidence. Building vaccine confidence is not just the reserve of Government and Members of this House; it is the reserve of everyone across Irish society who occupies a public platform, whether they are sports stars or influencers. It is more important than ever that this principle must apply to the national broadcaster and the media at large. I will not mention any names but we have seen this week an example of a view being presented that was not based on reality, fact, a pro-science approach or data of any sort. That is simply unacceptable. To simply be allowed to say, unchallenged, that there is no scientific data to support vaccines, when Moderna released data to show that of 30,000 people tested - 15,000 of whom were given a vaccine and 15,000 of whom were given a placebo - and of those who got the vaccine, 15 presented with symptoms, and of those who did not get the vaccine, 185 presented with symptoms. That is clear, cold, hard, clinical data. What more could one want? To say that we do not have evidence on the efficacy of vaccines is wrong, as is advocating for a zero-Covid approach, which has been debunked at every opportunity by everyone on this island of all political parties. To say such a thing and for it to go unchallenged is also wrong. Therefore there is a huge weight of responsibility, not just on those in this House but also on those in the media and right across Irish society, to build vaccine confidence. Quackery cannot go unchallenged as we build that confidence.
I want to put on record my deep disappointment with the British Government at its announcement this week that there will be no public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. We all sat here last week and passed a motion on our support for a public inquiry.
We have come far as a country but a tweet was sent on Saturday that threw reconciliation right out of the window. I am from Dundalk in north Louth, have lived through the Troubles and have seen the hate and hurt that has been inflicted. Living near Narrow Water, I have heard the stories and have seen the lives ruined by violence and hate. We need peace and reconciliation in this country and I note the leader of Sinn Féin has stated that we need to watch our mouths and watch what we say in public. One should also watch what one says in private. and should, please, lead. We need to move on in this country. I will not stand here and defend what the British did to this country because I am deplored by the horrors of the British Government and what they did to us but if we are going to move on, think about a shared island and a shared future and embrace our shared past, we must stop the vitriol and the celebration of violence.
Senator Seery Kearney raised the issue of GDPR and the decision in the Schrems case. I know that Senator Byrne has also been working on that issue. For the information of Members, we will be engaging directly with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, at the Brexit committee this afternoon at 4.30 p.m. I assure Members that the issue will be raised at the committee and we might get a more up-to-date response from Government on it.
Senator Craughwell made an impassioned speech in the House and I am not sure I have the words to respond effectively to what he said. I wish to commend him on his words and to sympathise with his mother, who must have gone through an awful time. She was put in a horrific situation back in the 1970s and beyond. As a trainee barrister, I worked on the Smithwick tribunal, so I am aware of the issues raised there. It did not get much coverage at the time but serious issues certainly were raised around collusion. It goes to the very heart of democracy and how we run this country and the confidence that citizens must have in all arms of the State.
On the issue of the tweet posted by Deputy Stanley, I acknowledge the apology he has issued. I also note the weighty response by the Ceann Comhairle to Arlene Foster's letter, in which he asked for a better political response to the matter. I hope that will be forthcoming. I agree with other Members who have also raised the issue that the glorification of killing and violence anywhere is just wrong. Senator Craughwell spoke of his understanding, having spoken to Deputy Stanley about the tweet, but I am not sure that it can be explained away at all, to be honest. I refer to glorifying what happened at Narrow Water. Barry McElduff resigned over posting a tweet about the Kingsmill massacre, yet there is a different response and approach to what Deputy Stanley did. I find that difficult and do not think that can be explained. I listened to the explanations of Deputies McDonald and Doherty on the radio yesterday. They were both on at roughly the same time, just after 8 a.m. - one on Newstalk and the other on RTÉ - giving the same lines. I am not sure that the response to date by the Sinn Féin leadership has been adequate or satisfactory and I hope that we see further action taken on that particular issue. I am sure there is more to come on it.
Senator Wall raised the issue the CSO report on mental health in the context of Covid. It is a very serious matter that needs to be raised. We have done a very good job in this country of protecting physical health in the Covid pandemic, and our immediate emergency response focused on physical health, protecting our hospitals and making sure that the health service was not overrun. We have done quite a poor job in protecting people's mental health. The figures in this regard are quite stark, with a doubling of rates of depression and there has been an impact on younger people. We must do better on that front because we have failed to protect people's mental health in the last number of months because we were firefighting and trying to respond to an emergency. However, we must learn from that because it will not be the last time that we come up against something of this nature. We need to do things better in the future and react now.
Senator Garvey raised the issue of remote working hubs and I thank her for putting on the record the information on the role of the broadband officer. I am aware of the broadband officer in Mayo County Council but it is an important point to make that if community groups are looking for access to broadband in different hubs across their county, there is a point of contact there that probably is underutilised because it is not very well known. Therefore it is important to get the message out to citizens.
Senator Ó Donnghaile raised the issue of health and well-being support for those who have survived institutional abuse. If things are being done better in the North and if there is a system in place there, of course we should learn from that and work with them. If we can replicate that here, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, because if something is working really well somewhere else, we should engage with it. I will certainly bring the Senator's points back to the relevant Minister because we have failed victims in respect of the provision of support services for them. Having a far-reaching counselling service that is difficult to get to, and which people do not know about, is not really providing a service - it is paying lip service to the issue and applying a sticking plaster to the problem. If there is a system elsewhere that is working well, we should look at it.
I also take on board the Senator's point about the anti-vax campaign. Work to address the issue is well under way and there is much to be done to claw it back. I know that the HSE and the public health experts have been waiting until they have the full data and information so that when they start their campaign to combat the anti-vax campaign, they have all the supports that they need. However, there will be a job of work for us to do as community leaders. I do not think that it is mad to suggest that perhaps certain influencers or those in high-level leadership roles should come out publicly and be seen to be getting the vaccine and to support it. It may require that. Certainly, I will have no difficulty in lining up to take the vaccine when it is made available to me. I am sure that I will be at the back of the queue, because thankfully I am of a relatively young age and am healthy. However I will certainly get the vaccine as soon as I can get access to it.
Senators Black and McGreehan raised the issue of the public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. I share in their disappointment that the British Government has refused to hold a public inquiry. In my view, that has been done solely to protect the interests of the British Government and nobody else. It does not serve Geraldine Finucane and the family who suffered a tragic loss. I commend her on the fact that for over 30 years, she has been campaigning to get to the truth of this matter and she is not going to stop in that fight for truth. Senator Ardagh raised the issue of the reconfirmation by AIB that it will close its branch in Crumlin and reduce its workforce by 1,500. Covid has accelerated the pace of change in terms of automation and moving things online but that does not work for everybody because we have a lot of older citizens who rely on a face-to-face service. I trust and hope that AIB will take on board the comments made by Senator Ardagh and others asking that it look after its elderly customers who are as important as all other customers and will make sure a proper service is provided. Also, for the staff who are looking at the potential loss of their jobs, I hope that every effort will be made to relocate them to other areas of the company to make sure that they are not left without their jobs.
Senator Kyne asked for a debate on greenways, blueways and walkways. We will certainly make that request to the Minister for Transport. I thank the Senator for bringing to the fore in this House the great success story of the Great Western Greenway. In terms of getting the greenway up and running, no compulsory purchase order or CPO was needed. Negotiations took place with a huge group of farmers right across the county. With no small work done by Padraig Philbin and his team on Mayo County Council, agreement was secured from every landowner to make the greenway happen. That is the preferable way to do things and I agree with Senator Kyne that a CPO should be the last port of call. We should not block public projects that benefit the wider public so if we have to go there then we will go there. It is by far preferable to get the agreement of landowners in advance by working with them and listening to their concerns. Very often people are reasonable and will work with local authorities to provide public spaces so if they say "no", there is a reason. Let us work with people and avoid the CPO process as best we can.
Senator Boyhan raised the issue of the promised interim payment from the age of 65 to 66 and before one reaches pension age. That promise was made by my own party and others before the election. I hope and trust that it will be delivered on. I do not have a direct response as to the stage that has been reached. I have sought a response and will provide it directly to him as soon as I have it. These people have worked all of their lives and should not be put back in the dole queue in order to deal with the break of a year when many of those workers have no choice but to retire at 65 years. My party made the promise and I will do all that I can to make sure it is fulfilled.
Senators Byrne and Seery Kearney raised the Schrems decision. Senator Byrne mentioned air quality and the need for a clean air Act. Last weekend, Dublin city experienced difficulties with air quality. Apparently, the reduced air quality has been linked to "The Late Late Toy Show" and people lighting fires to create an ambience or mood in their houses but perhaps that is anecdotal evidence. The incident brought back memories of the 1970s and 1980s when people used smoky coal. The incident also shows that it does not take much to increase air pollution and that is not good. Every year people lose their lives due to bad air quality and we can do better than that in 2020.
Certainly we will again look for a debate on the issue of Poland and Hungary. I will not comment in too much detail on the issues in Belgium but will say that the absolute hypocrisy displayed by an MEP is quite shocking given that he drafted the constitution for his own country. Basically, he is saying one thing publicly and doing another thing in private but I do not wish to get too adversarial about the issue. In terms of the Fidesz party remaining a member of the European People's Party, EPP, some minor sanctions being issued really does not go far enough. I ask Members to reflect on that and address same to the satisfaction of all right thinking Members of this Parliament.
The report on youth unemployment by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, needs to be addressed. The last time I raised the issue we were at 40% but now it is 47%. Those jobs may not return in the short term. This issue needs to be addressed because younger people need employment opportunities.
Senator Burke raised the issue of Eir and other companies in terms of trying to break a contract with a company where one has signed up for a utility. I have come across an issue myself. Obviously the normal contract law of the country applies. If one cannot contact the individual company sometimes sending a letter is the best method because there are better ways to spend two hours than trying to contact Eir. Yes, ComReg has a role to play. I know the matter has been raised with the Joint Committee on Transport and Communication Networks. Last week, we specifically raised the Eir issue and certainly it may be worth contacting ComReg about it again. Contract law applies. If conditions of a contract have been breached then a person is entitled to break his or her contract.
I thank the Senator. ComReg is before the committee next week so we will be able to raise the issue at the committee meeting.
Senator Hoey raised the issue of young carers. The figures show that there is a stark gap. If there really are 67,000 young carers between the ages of ten and 17 providing unpaid care in this country and one in four of them goes to bed hungry then that is a massive problem that I was not aware of. We need to seek an urgent debate with the Minister on that particular issue because these carers often do not have a voice. In the last decade the people of this country have talked a lot about the voice of the child and Tusla has done a good bit of work on that. The publicly available figures show a huge gap and that needs to be answered for, quite frankly. We will seek the debate at the earliest opportunity and I thank the Senator for raising the issue on the floor of the House.
Senator Dooley raised the issue of community employment schemes. I fully endorse everything that he has said about the importance of the schemes to every local community. If we did not have the schemes all of the services that we take for granted, such as the Tidy Towns competition and meals on wheels, simply would not run or work without volunteers. For the sake of €20 the six-year rule needs to be looked at. Many people, particularly older men, have found themselves out of the workforce because the jobs that they did are now being done by machines and automation so such work is dwindling all of the time. There is huge social capital to be gained by allowing people to continue working and be part of their communities. This issue needs to be addressed.
Senator Ahearn raised the important issue of reopening the arts sector. He made the point that it is not just about money and it is not. The arts, theatres and performing artists are part of the heart and soul of this country. We have a very proud tradition so we need to protect artists. They have had a really difficult year and more than any other sector because with a complete shutdown there was no way to earn money. The outlet could be lost to a lot of people who may have to go elsewhere. The Senator also raised another important issue, concerning anti-vaxxers.
Senator Fitzpatrick raised the issue of 56 black balloons hanging on the gates of Leinster House lest we ever forget the 56 homeless people who have lost their lives this year. There is no excuse for a First World wealthy country to have homeless people on the streets. It is not just about providing a bed. It is the wraparound services to deal with issues may they be mental health, addiction and other supports that people need to get back up on their feet and back out into the community. The issue is a really important one to raise here and we stand in solidarity with those individuals who have lost their lives. The Inner City Helping Homeless is a community group that has been set up to do this work. They do fantastic work on a voluntary basis on which I commend them.
Senator Keogan raised the issue of parents being allowed to attend the Croke Park matches and suggested a sensible solution. I will contact the Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Jack Chambers, about the issue. Perhaps it could be suggested that each player bring two people whether it is a partner, parents or whatever. Given the size of Croke Park, let us be a little bit flexible and reasonable. I have expressed my personal view and do not know what the Minister of State's response will be but I will pass on the reasonable and decent suggestion.
Senator Murphy did a round up of the Order of Business at the start of his contribution, for which I thank him. He also raised the issue of the N5 upgrade. I have driven the road for years so I know that the worst part is the section in Roscommon. The road does need upgrading and partly because many Roscommon people drive by Athlone and up the M6 so the other road has been neglected. For those of us who live in Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and other counties the N5 is an important route that needs to be supported. The national development plan review is currently under way, on which many of us are working on submitting a submission, and this matter will certainly be part of the Fianna Fáil submission on the west of Ireland.
Senator Dolan raised the issue of inappropriate planning. I am not completely au faitwith the issue that she raised. If the community is so collectively united on this issue then one should be able to liaise with local authority and An Bord Pleanála to resolve the issue. No project should be bulldozed through a community where nobody gives their support because that, to me, highlights that there is a big problem. This matter goes back to what Senator Kyne raised around CPOs and trying to get people on board. At the end of the day, the community comes first. If the project serves the people they will support it but if it does not then they will not. Is that not a basic principle? I hope that a resolution can be found that is to the satisfaction of the people who live in the area.
Senator O'Loughlin came in to support the community employment scheme debate and raised the issue of pensions for CE supervisors, which is an ongoing campaign that I fully support. She also raised the issue of the horticultural sector that directly employs 6,600 people and indirectly supports 11,000 jobs, which is a huge number of employees. The arbitrary planning and licensing process, and the four to six year wait, sounds unreasonable and excessively bureaucratic. The matter needs to be addressed and certainly I will pass it up the line.
Senator Lombard raised the issue of the post office network, which is one that has dominated debate in both Houses for the last number of years. We are a changing and evolving country. Rural Ireland is changing, people's movements are changing and even post offices are changing. However, post offices still provide an essential service to many older people not just for post office services but also community contact. That checking up on elderly neighbours and keeping an eye on people is really important.I commend An Post for its work and how it has changed the business around. From a position where it could have ceased to exist, An Post has turned it around. The AddressPal part of the organisation has been successful and the parcel delivery service has done well.
Senator Cassells raised the issue of the Navan rail line. I can attest to having listened to the Senator raise the issue on many occasions and I know he is deeply passionate about the issue. There has been a boom in the population of Meath and it clearly needs that rail line. I agree that the area has been waiting 20 years for it. We have a similar issue in the west of Ireland and have been banging the drum for the western rail corridor for many years. I am glad that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has been supportive of rail in general and the need to provide that service to citizens because people want to get out of their cars and use public transport. That must be a top priority for the Government and the Navan rail line would be a fantastic addition to the people of Meath whom the Senator represents.
Senator Mullen raised the issue of universities and blended learning. It is farcical to call it "blended learning" because it is just learning from home. If universities can make a student stay at home, they will. They might get away with it this year because we are still in the middle of a crisis but universities are going to have to reflect on this and take a long, hard look at their fee structures because costs are justified by the college experience of people being on campus. If students are learning from home, it simply cannot cost the same to provide a course. Universities cannot justify their exorbitant fees. The fees for Smurfit business school are huge. I have been contacted by members of a campaign who are rightly looking for a reduction in costs because they are hard to justify. That brings forward the broader issue that the Government is going to have to deal with Peter Cassells' report and how we fund third level. That was not addressed in the previous term and that report has been gathering dust for quite some time. We must have a real conversation in this country about how we want to fund third level education. The heart of our response must provide access to third level for all students in this country, not based on who has money. Every young person should have the opportunity to go to third level.
Senator McGahon raised the issue of confidence in the vaccine and I think I have addressed that. If we are all willing to get on board and put confidence into the heart of this campaign, we will do that, but we have a job of work on our hands. Broadly speaking, I think people are welcoming the news of a vaccine and the data has been positive. I am not an expert on this stuff but I certainly feel reassured by what I am hearing.
The Senator raised an important issue around the responsibility of the media. If they are going to invite on representatives of the "other side" of the issue, if we want to call it that when it is unfounded in science or fact, there is an obligation on the media and journalists to make sure they are ready to come back at those contributors with hard facts in order to debunk and rubbish false assertions. It is a dangerous place to tread. If a media outlet is going to invite the other side onto a programme to participate in a debate, it needs to do its work to ensure that facts make it out to the public.
Senator McGreehan made an impassioned speech about peace and reconciliation on this island. I took from what she said that we need to embrace our shared past. I would certainly concur with her words about the Pat Finucane inquiry and what she said about the comments made by Deputy Stanley about Narrow Water. There has been widespread political condemnation of those comments which has shown the public that we are past all of that, moving and looking forward. That type of comment has no place in a democratic society that respects the rules and values of human decency, reconciliation and peace on this island that we all care for so much. I reiterate that we are expecting a better and more appropriate political response on the matter and I hope we will not be found wanting.