Friday, 12 March 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I want to wish everyone on the Emerald Isle and, of course, the over 70 million people of Irish heritage living abroad a happy St. Patrick's Day. Article 2 of the Constitution states that the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish heritage living overseas. This St. Patrick's Day we will celebrate every member of that global Irish community. From the home of the Parliament of the people of Ireland and from the Irish nation, beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh go léir.
Guím Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona ar mo chairde go léir agus ar an diaspóra atá ag dul i méid i gcónaí ar fud na cruinne. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as an mbronntanas seamróga. Iontas álainn a bhí ann.
Is é seo a leanas an tOrd Gnó inniu. The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the extension of the report-back deadline for the Joint Committee on Public Petitions, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion re the extension of the report-back deadline for the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, motion re restoration of a Bill to the Order Paper, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, without debate; No. 4, Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 3.30 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than six minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 5, Family Leave Bill 2021 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 3.45 p.m. and to conclude at 5.45 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than six minutes to reply to the debate.
I support and welcome the Order of Business from the Leader. On behalf of my party, Fianna Fáil, I extend our gratitude to the Cathaoirleach for the good wishes he extended to the global diaspora and I extend our greetings to those who live abroad.
I wish to raise a number of matter. First, I will talk briefly of the 5,000 acres that comprise the Curragh Plains. I have spoken often in this Chamber about the illegal encampments and illegal waste which, sadly, has been left all around the Curragh over the past number of years. I was glad when a consultation on the future management of the Curragh Plains was announced yesterday. This will start on Monday. Kildare County Council is working with the Department of Defence on drawing up a plan to ensure that we preserve appropriately the archeological and the geological and, of course, to work with the Curragh Racecourse and with the Department of Defence. This is an important consultation. I recommend and encourage people to get involved.
I wish to refer to another ongoing consultation relating to the Defence Forces. That consultation is due to close on 19 March. The Defence Forces have been to the fore in supporting Ireland during the Covid crisis. There are many different tasks that they have undertaken and they deserve our gratitude. There are two particular matters that I would like to mention. The first relates to an ongoing story that I have been following in respect of which KFM has done a good job. I refer to sexual assault within the Army and at the Curragh Camp. It was quite shocking to listen to Jonathan O'Brien. Dr. Tom Clonan has written about this matter in the past. There needs to be an independent investigation into the matter and I am calling for that today. In terms of the consultation, I also want to mention that it is so important that recruits have the opportunity to have an affiliation with a union, and PDFORRA makes that case eloquently.
The final point I wish to raise also, funnily enough, relates to the Curragh.I refer to the secondary school in the Curragh. I do not know what genius in the Department of Education thought up the idea of contacting the Curragh Post Primary School to ask it to increase its intake for next year by over 100% by taking in 167 pupils on top of the 125 pupils at present. It is absolutely ridiculous. There are no facilities or place for a prefab. It brings us back to the urgent need for a secondary school for the Newbridge-Curragh-Kildare axis, which I have raised here before. Enough is enough. We need some decision on the size specification.
I am conscious it is coming up to St. Patrick's Day and would like to take this opportunity to thank our overseas missions and embassies that represent us, our diaspora and more importantly, our interest, throughout the world. I single out the ambassador, Dan Mulhall, based in Washington. I also refer to our ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, in Austria, as well as our Irish ambassador to Austria, who is also based in Vienna, Austria. We are unique in having two ambassadors there representing different aspects of the Government.
It is time to acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, went to Tehran last week. It is important and significant for a number of reasons. It is important we develop our trade. When one builds relationships, one builds opportunities. The Minister's trip to Tehran last week was significant in that he met President Hassan Rouhani. He had many discussions about many matters in terms of the United Nations and nuclear issues but I will not go into them today.
It is important we use our links, in Iran in particular, to increase trade. We had an enormous trade in beef prior to the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE. That trade had to be dropped because of that issue and international sanctions were also an issue. We are now getting back to normality and there have been developments. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, announced the Government's intentions to open up an embassy in Tehran in the next two years. It is important.
Iran is eager to do business with us. As Members are aware, it has an embassy in south County Dublin. It is keen to do business. We should build on those relationships. We are unique people. Together with the Middle East generally, the Iranian people are supportive and sympathetic to Ireland and have a special place in their heart. I have Lebanese relatives so I am familiar with the Middle East. I am familiar with their commitments to Ireland and the Irish people. It is significant and we should tap into it. Our mutton and dairy products are in demand out there. I thank the Minister for that significant trip. As he led a successful agricultural trade mission to Tehran some years ago, he has the experience and knowledge and will build on that.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for the presentation of his shamrock today. As a horticulturist, I checked out that this is Irish grown. It was not grown on Irish peat for anyone who has a concern about Irish peat. It was grown hydroponically, that is, it was grown through a solution. I will conclude by noting it is a trifolium with three leaves. It has much significance for different people, whatever their belief or ethos. It is significant and is Irish. As Bord Bia will tell one, all over the world, this trifolium symbol is embossed on our products. It is synonymous with Ireland, the green island. I would welcome a debate about Ireland, the island of Ireland initiative and how we can expand our exports of agrifoods across the Continent and the world. I wish everyone a happy and enjoyable St. Patrick's Day.
I will follow everybody else in wishing everybody a happy St. Patrick's Day next week, including Irish people living abroad. It will be a little bit different because people are not travelling this year. St Patrick's Day is often used as an opportunity by Ministers to lobby for the undocumented Irish in the US. I ask that next week, people do not forget those who have come to Ireland and who have ended up being undocumented here. Many of them came here to work but fell into undocumentation through bad employers or the loss of jobs. This affects up to 17,000 people and I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government, in the inclusion of which was led by the Green Party, to give these people a pathway to legal residency. The Labour Party stands in solidarity with the undocumented in Ireland. I ask that we remember them next week as we extol the virtues of us moving around the globe in search of a better life, and realise some people come to Ireland to do that too.
I raise the issue of the extension of the eviction ban until the end of 2021. When the 5 km limit is lifted, many of us will be relieved. We will be able to see friends and travel. However, there are people for whom the lifting of the 5 km will mean they are facing potential homelessness. There is no political or legal reason that was tied together in the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act. We tried to give the Minister the opportunity to extend the eviction ban, for health reasons, without linking it to the 5 km.
In the two months after the last eviction ban was lifted in August, more than 360 people were served eviction notices. There is a build-up of evictions waiting to happen. I know of two and will give examples. A man with two children is going to be evicted due to substantial renovations. He does not believe that is the reason but by the time it is heard by the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, he, his wife and his two children will be out on the street with nowhere to go. It is very difficult to see how they will be able to find alternative accommodation in the middle of a pandemic. In another case, I know of a woman whose landlord has begun to make noises about moving to Spain as a result of the pandemic. She is in receipt of housing assistance payment, HAP, and has lived there for eight years.
I checked the property price register for that particular house. Both these people live on the same road. The landlord paid under €100,000 for the property which has been made back many times since. It seems fundamentally unfair that two families are potentially facing eviction, when the landlord could potentially make three times what he paid for the property if he sells it. Substantial renovations are not an adequate excuse.
I ask the Minister to consider extending the eviction ban until the end of 2021, giving families living in the private rented sector certainty in the middle of this global pandemic.
I am delighted to welcome and announce funding on behalf of the Government, together with my colleagues from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, of over €60 million for Galway city. This funding will transform our city in respect of things for which people have spent years working. Local communities in Wood Quay have been looking for regeneration to have public realm space in Wood Quay, Eyre Square and across the city. We are also spending €10 million on Oranmore train station and preparing Ceannt Station in order that we can finally see double-tracking from Athenry to the city. With the support of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, I believe we will see this.
The old stumps of the Clifden railway line have been an historic sight across the Corrib. They will be transformed into a cycling and pedestrian way that will link the university with Wood Quay. It will be something magnificent to come to Galway for, as if there is not enough to come there for already. There will also be a start to the Moycullen to Galway part of the Connemara greenway. I woke up with a spring in my step. This is a good day for the west and I am delighted to welcome the funding.
Turning to another matter, I received an email, as other Senators have, which was quite disturbing.It relates to a fourth class English book. I would like the Leader to ask the Minister for Education to investigate it. It is quite shocking to read some of the things in this fourth class English book about autism and young people. It could have a deep impact on mental health at a very young age. The book states:
My own hands squeeze to fists. Sometimes I wish someone would invent a pill so David'd wake up one morning without autism, like someone waking from a long coma, and he'd say "Jeez, Catherine, where have I been". And he’d be a regular brother like Melissa has.
Imagine putting that into the hands of small children. We are trying to teach people about tolerance and self-worth. I would like to investigate whether this is in fourth class classrooms and, if it is, we really need to have a conversation about what it is that children are being taught.
Guím beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ar an Cheannaire, ar mo chomhghleacaithe agus ar na daoine ar fud na tíre agus ar fud an domhain. It is an important opportunity, as we approach St. Patrick's Day, for us to remember and recognise the very important bond and link we have with our diaspora throughout the world. It will come as no surprise to colleagues in the House that I would use the opportunity again to call on the Government, once it is safe to do so and once we have navigated safely through the Covid restrictions and we are in a place where we can, to bring forward the referendum Bill on extending the franchise in presidential votes to citizens across the island and to those who qualify throughout our diaspora.
I want to draw the attention of the House to a statement released by my party colleague in the North, John Finucane, MP, who has said the Council of Europe has reopened the investigation into his father's killing. He says that it is a significant move, that the British Government has been criticised internationally, including in this House, for its failure to establish an inquiry, and that this level of scrutiny is vital to help ensure the truth about his father's murder can finally emerge.
On a separate and final matter, 50 years ago this year a handful of families on Shaw's Road in Belfast established the first Irish-medium primary school in the North. At the time, the unionist Government at Stormont threatened them with internment if they did not cease and desist from their activities educating their children. The House can imagine my delight, as a product of the primary school, when it was announced by Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta that at present, for the first time, more than 7,000 children in the Six Counties attend Irish-medium education. It is a wonderful cause for celebration, not least in the context of Seachtain na Gaeilge. Real lessons can be learned and shared about best practice in developing and growing our Irish-medium sector throughout the island. I also note the efforts to establish an Irish-speaking naíscoil by Linda Irvine and the Turas project in east Belfast. It just goes to show how the language is flourishing, in particular in that sector, in the North. I ask for dedicated statements from the Minister for Education relating to the Irish language sector - how we assist it to grow, how we ensure it can be supported and helped with the problems it faces and, crucially, how we ensure best practice.
I extend my best wishes to everyone on St. Patrick's Day. It will be a different St. Patrick's Day this year, like last year, but hopefully we will make the most of it.
This morning, I want to raise the issue, again, of gender-based violence. This week, like most weeks, we have heard horrendous stories about women being raped, sexually assaulted and beaten up.The victim might then be blamed if people say she should not have been walking down that road or out in the first place.
The problem is not about somebody walking home, having too many drinks or being in the wrong clothes. The problem is that our streets are not safe. Female politicians attend public meetings and I presume we are all the same in that if we go into the car park after such a meeting, we have our keys and phone in our hands. We might see a man across the car park and I presume our male colleagues do not have the same experience as to another man, that does not seem like a threat. For women in the car park on their own, somebody else in that car park would be automatically seen as a threat. I always take a deep breath and move as fast as I can. I would be ready to make a call on the phone while I get to my car. It is a normal approach for most women.
I would appreciate it if a member of the Government could come to the Chamber to outline how we are going to formulate concrete measures to deal with this. This should not be about victim blaming and it is not a victim's fault if an assault happens. It is the fault of the person who instigated the assault. We must ensure we can have safe streets. That might involve more closed-circuit television, more public lighting, proper deterrence and a fairer court system for victims.
Beanachtaí na Féile Phádraig daoibh go léir. I also mention the excellent news of €62.5 million of investment announced under the urban regeneration development fund by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, this morning. This fund was put in place a number of years ago by the then Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and this is the second call for funding. It is certainly welcome news and a massive boost for walking and cycling facilities, with approximately €23 million being spent, including €11 million on the new cycleway over the abutments of the Galway to Clifden railway line and a further €12 million for the city cycle network. Funding is so important as it will make the city safer for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, as well as drivers, as part of the Galway transport strategy, supported by both city and county councillors.
There are many funding streams available through Departments for community, sport and leisure. They are funded by taxes, such as VAT, corporation tax and rates levied on businesses and citizens. There is also funding from the European Union. I speak of funds such as LEADER, the sports capital programme, CLÁR, Pobal, the rural recreation fund, the urban regeneration development fund, the rural regeneration development fund, the town and village schemes, local authority grants, Roinn na Gaeltachta grants, education and training board and sports grants. I am sure there are many more.
One of the groups in the community I have difficulty advising are those looking to build a sports or community centre. Many of the smaller projects can be funded under LEADER but for the larger projects valued at between €3 million and €5 million, there is no one Department to go to. Some of the more well-off local authorities may be able to fund such a project through a rates base or whatever but many communities cannot do this. Senator Pauline O'Reilly and I, among others, are dealing with the community in Newcastle in Galway city and the Moycullen community in my area and no one Department is dealing with this.
I have spoken with the Tánaiste about this and it is time for a single fund administered or applied by local authorities to a Department, possibly the Department of Rural and Community Development, for community centres. This could be confined to scheduled towns, cities or areas where there is a town plan because there would be a demand. It is something that is needed and vital. These are costly projects and built to such high specifications with environmental and sustainability concerns in mind. There are also costs arising from health and safety measures. Communities cannot deal with such projects without a single government fund. I hope we can engage with the Government to provide such a fund.
I hope everybody has a wonderful St. Patrick's Day. I will again address the question of the Covid-19 pandemic and the State's vaccination programme, which is, to be frank, progressing at a snail's pace. Yesterday the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, admitted he was to miss the modest target of 1.25 million doses to be administered by the end of March, yet another abject failure.We also learned that the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues have no plan to source vaccines outside the European procurement system so we have to wait and wait while people suffer. What kind of a plan is that? Is that what this Government regards as leadership? That is unacceptable. The people deserve better than that. Meanwhile, this Government is giving massive pay hikes to senior officials, including the €81,000 pay hike to the Secretary General of the Department of Health. That is a 40% pay increase. What has the Government promised the nurses? A mere 1%. The CEO of the HSE is paid €363,000 while student nurses who have been on the front line receive nothing. Is that fair? The Director General of the World Health Organization is paid €100,000 less than our head of the Department of Health. The Government tells us this is the right decision and it has to pay this amount to get the right applicants for the Department. Are we getting the right results to justify this expenditure? As things stand, we have inoculated fewer people than there are in Cork alone. We have administered one tenth of the number of vaccines they have in Israel and less than a third of the number in Northern Ireland. It is unacceptable. They say Nero fiddled while Rome burned. While this Government fiddles, lives and livelihoods are being destroyed and the nation is trapped in a lockdown that is seemingly without end.
I will speak on the issue my colleague, Senator McGreehan, raised in relation to the conversation about women feeling safe on our streets. The conversation arises after the tragic death of Sarah Everard in the UK. We should be asking ourselves what we can do about this in this House. We could look at our sentencing laws to start with and outlaw any sort of concurrent sentencing for sexual offence-based crimes. It is outrageous that if someone rapes ten people they will serve one sentence. It should be the case that they know if they rape ten people, they will get their full consecutive sentences and will have to serve every day of them. We could also make sure we have more gardaí on the street and the councils could have more street lighting. Ultimately, as a society and as a mother of two sons, we have to rear our children better and have a better and more open discussion about consent. We need to do much more when it comes to sexual education and we need to be more informative towards our children so we rear the children of this nation better and we do not end up revisiting these situations.
I was speaking to colleagues and friends about this. When I was in my 20s, I lived in town and would walk home every night I was out and felt semi-safe doing so. They say that at the moment they would never do that and if I am going out at night-time now, however many years later, I will be scurrying around like a rat trying to not make myself look in any way like a woman. I put a hat or hoodie up and go about doing my messages.
It is something we need to have a debate on in this House. It is really important because women do not feel safe out there at night time. It is up to us, as legislators, to do better.
I wish people the very best for the upcoming St. Patrick's season as well. I rise today because I was taken aback and disappointed with the statement the Future of Media Commission released a couple of days ago concerning Alan Rusbridger and his continuation as a member of that body. I do not believe it is appropriate for that man to continue in that position and-----
Gabh mo leithscéal. There is an issue in relation to privilege in this House. We all know about the new Standing Orders that have been brought in in this House on foot of legal action taken against Members of the Oireachtas.
To be clear, anyone is entitled to raise issues in this House and that is what this Parliament is about but there is a counterbalance in relation to individual rights and we must be very aware of those rights. Ar aghaidh leat.
One hundred percent, but I believe that this House and the Members of this House need to have confidence in the Future of Media Commission. The role of the media and the work it does in the State is extremely important. We as a Chamber and as a body need to have full confidence in the work the commission does. At this moment in time I do not have confidence in that. It is incumbent on the commission to actually restore that confidence. If it does not, I believe it is appropriate for the Minister to intervene and restore that confidence. I will leave it at that. This is a very important issue and people see it for what it is. It is not appropriate and it is not good enough. It should not be tolerated.
Guím beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ar na Seanadóirí go léir. Gabhaim buíochas as an nGaeilge agus as na seamróga. Happy St. Patrick's Day to all. I also wish colleagues a happy International Women's Week, given the week that is in it. I thank the Leader for hosting Monday's debate on International Women's Day. On that day I spoke about women's representation and the need to ensure we do not perpetuate obstacles to women's representation. In that vein I welcome the news that the Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, will be able to take maternity leave. Clearly in the Constitution there is provision for us to legislate to provide for maternity leave. We do not need a constitutional amendment. The Constitution should not be seen as an obstacle to enabling women's participation in politics. It is Article 28.12 of the Constitution. That is very clear.
Further obstacles lie in all sorts of other issues. To address some of these, the Labour Party and I have brought forward a reproductive health-related leave Bill that we look forward to introducing in the Seanad on 22 March. I will be asking for Government support for this to provide for a short period of paid leave for those employees, both women and men but predominantly women, who must avail of time off work for IVF or other reproductive health-related reasons, or for women who suffer early miscarriage, for which there is no specific statutory provision yet. I have worked with the INTO and with Councillor Alison Gilliland on this over a couple of years. It is long overdue. The lack of any specific recognition of reproductive health matters is another barrier to women's participation in the workplace and we need to see legislation on this.
I support my colleague's call for the intervention of the Minister to address what I believe to be a very serious issue around the Future of Media Commission, which includes public service broadcasting. The Minister was not slow about intervening with regard to the travel by members of the board of Bord Fáilte when, in the minds of some, they transgressed the restrictions at the time. It is really appropriate now, when one considers what is at stake, that this issue is addressed without delay.
I want to raise the issue of eating disorders. I call on the Leader to have the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, come to the House at the earliest opportunity to discuss the difficulties that have arisen in that area. In 2018 there was a commitment in a plan published by the HSE to put in place specialist hubs nationwide, to be done over five years, offering specialist multidisciplinary teams of clinicians. Unfortunately, that commitment did not come to pass. Effectively, nothing happened. In fairness to the Minister of State, she is addressing the issue and has made commitments. I believe that we need a wider debate in the House on the whole issue of eating disorders. It creates and poses an intolerable burden on so many families. It is one of those issues that is addressed silently and does not come to the fore. It also places an intolerable cost burden on many families because the appropriately trained doctors are not available within the public health system. Many families beg, borrow and steal to get services in the private sector and some must travel outside the State to get access to specialist treatment. While I welcome the approach being taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, I believe that wider society would benefit from a full, open and frank debate in this House about this silent killer that is associated with eating disorders.All the evidence shows that people get through it when appropriate intervention is taken at an early stage. They get to live their lives and recover. For those who do not have access to that specialist treatment, however, unfortunately, in many cases, it ends in death. I believe we owe it to all those concerned to address that issue.
On this morning 47 years ago, in a field outside Clones in County Monaghan, the body of Senator Billy Fox was discovered with a single gunshot wound through his upper back. He was killed instantly. The night before, he was visiting the home of his fiancé, Marjorie Coulson, at her family home; a Protestant family from a Border area. As he went down the dark laneway that night, he was confronted by 12 IRA gunmen who were in the process of searching the Coulson home. They were wrongly tipped off and lied to, and told that the Coulson family were hiding arms for loyalist paramilitaries. It was a total and utter lie and a stain upon the Coulson family. Billy Fox confronted the 12 men and then tried to escape. He got 1 km away and was shot at the bottom of a field. Subsequently, the Coulson family home was burnt and the family were put out onto the side of the road.
Billy Fox was one of the most courageous politicians this House has ever seen. He was an outspoken critic of the British military campaign in the Border region and of the British policy of cratering Border roads, and yet, he was still murdered. He took CS gas canisters and rubber bullets into this very Chamber to protest against the then Government's policy on Northern Ireland and had to be forcibly removed by the ushers of this House. That cost him his Dáil seat in the subsequent general election and it cost him his life the following year.
Very few Members of the Oireachtas have been assassinated. Before Billy Fox, it was Kevin O'Higgins in 1927. Now, on the 40th anniversary of his murder and as we approach the 50th anniversary, I believe it is incumbent that this House recognises Senator Fox as an assassinated Member, and that we erect some form of plaque or memorial to him in Leinster House. I suggest that everyone who has the opportunity today should google "Rumours from Monaghan", an excellent RTÉ radio documentary that starts off on a September autumn morning with the birds chirping as the presenter stands by the grave of Senator Fox in Aughnamullen cemetery in County Monaghan. We need to remember Senator Fox in an appropriate way in this House.
I thank the Senator for raising the memory of Billy Fox and his courageous service to the State, which cost him his life. I know that Coillte has a memorial forest for him in his home county. On this occasion, it would be fitting for Members to reflect upon Members who have gone before us. As the Senator has stated, however, very few had to make the ultimate sacrifice because they were public representatives who stood up for what they believed in and spoke out against injustice on all sides. Senator McGahon's suggestion that this House should mark Senator Fox's sacrifice is appropriate. I will raise it at the next Oireachtas commission meeting. I thank the Senator. I call Senator Warfield.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for the shamrock. I do not believe I have worn shamrocks since I was very young.
Last Monday, the House debated a Sinn Féin Private Members' business motion on the private rental sector. The Government proposed an amendment which referenced the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I did not mention it on the night as I did not want to pay any disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, who turned up. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, failed to turn up, however. It was reported in the media that he was on a cross-county trip announcing funding for various projects, something which, I believe, could have been done by a short video or press releases, as has been standard over the last year.
Sinn Féin engaged with the Seanad Office on what Private Members' business we were presenting and what it was likely to cover. The officials, therefore, had time to clear their diaries. We have two Private Members' business slots every term. When the Opposition, or any party in this House, brings forward a Private Members' business motion, the Seanad Office should intervene if the Minister offers no viable excuse for not being able to attend.It sends a message to this House and it is contrary to the commitment that the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has given to this House on numerous occasions when he has been here for legislation.
The Taoiseach has said he supports lowering the voting age to 16. We understand from reports in the press that Fianna Fáil want this on the agenda. It is necessary, prior to any referendum, that we legislate to lower the voting age for local and European elections. To show our support and to thank the Leader, we in Sinn Féin have retabled our vote at 16 years Bill for debate on Committee Stage. I thank the Leader for that. This is the change young people deserve and it is supported by organisations that support young people. I thank the Civil Engagement Group for working with me in the past on lowering the voting age.
In December, I raised on the Order of Business the matter of Waterford City and County Council's application to the urban regeneration and development fund, and I do so again this morning to highlight the necessity of Government support for what I believe will be a transformative regeneration project for Waterford city centre, focusing on 22 projects across the Viking triangle and cultural quarter areas of the city.
In November, the Government brought forward a decision on Waterford City and County Council's application for the north quays, and €110 million in Government support was given to the Waterford City and County Council to bring forward its plans for the 7 ha waterfront site. A project and application that has gone under the radar is the application for €27.6 million in support towards a €48.5 million plan to bring derelict and underutilised buildings back into productive use as incubation hubs, creative spaces, modern usable accommodation and areas where the community can meet and relax. In addition, there are public realm upgrade plans for O'Connell Street across to the new distillery on Mary Street, and a new plaza and park areas are planned for the entrance to the city in the area of the Beach Tower and along Spring Garden Alley to open up views of the medieval city walls. There are also plans to create a new square that links Greyfriars and Bailey's New Street, which would create new accommodation and expanded commercial space at ground-floor level.
As someone who lives in the city centre and is very passionate about the city centre and the plans to grow Waterford in the context of the 2040 plan, I believe this project is essential to realise my vision to make my city the best place in which to live, work and grow old. Will the Leader indicate when a decision and announcement will be made on the Waterford and projects in the south east? I understand they are going to be made for the south east at some point. Some clarity on that would be appreciated.
I welcome the announcement by the Government yesterday allowing visits to nursing homes from 22 March. This has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone in the country, but it has been most difficult for residents in nursing homes and their families, not being able to have the weekly visits and the comfort they would receive from family members. I welcome the fact visits will now go ahead. There has been an awful lot of talk about the vaccine roll-out and the challenges we as a country have had, but one of the successes we have certainly had has been the vaccination of everyone in nursing homes and their now being secure and safe places for residents and staff.
In terms of long-term residential care, I am beginning to see an upcoming issue relating to insurance costs. I spoke recently to a residential care provider in Tipperary who is in the process of renewing insurance and was quoted an increase of 130% on last year's premium. Last year, they paid €30,000 in insurance for their premises and this year they have been quoted €70,000. They now have to take out a loan to pay for their insurance costs.The insurance period for most residential care centres ends in June. The residential care centre to which I refer had no Covid-19 outbreak in the past year and no claims in the 20 years it has been operating yet there has been a 130% increase in its insurance costs. We can imagine what it will be like for all the residential care centres that have had Covid outbreaks and claims in previous years. We have seen what spiralling insurance costs have done to other sectors in recent years. We need to get on top of this issue as quickly as possible. The Minister should come into the House as a matter of urgency to outline how that will be rectified because an increase of 130% in insurance costs on any business, but particularly residential care centres, is not acceptable.
I thank my colleagues. I agree with Senator Ahearn. I very much welcome the announcements by the medics yesterday that we can resume nursing home visits. All of us are aware of the pain and suffering of some of our elderly relatives caused not only by Covid but also by the loneliness they have experienced in the past 12 months. Anybody who has spoken to someone they know about loneliness knows it is a pain far greater than any physical pain he or she has to endure so the news is very welcome because it gives us hope and represents some light at the end of a very long tunnel. Today marks the 12-month anniversary of the then Taoiseach's speech from America. I said to somebody this morning that in some ways it feels as if he made that speech five years ago and in others it seems that the year has passed very quickly. It certainly has not passed quickly for some of the residents living in nursing homes up and down the country so the news is very welcome.
I will bring the Senator's concerns with regard to insurance costs and that industry to the attention of the Tánaiste because if the increases are as a result of Covid, it is very much an issue that needs to be tackled by the industry and the Tánaiste's Department. It will reflect in any of the fair deal funding we have so it is something the Government should be very aware of and instructive in immediately.
This is the second time Senator Cummins has so beautifully described with pride his plans for Waterford city. He really makes us envious. I am aware that the Minister will be in his neck of the woods, in Carlow, on Monday so I wish him and all of the people behind the project every success. All of us will be keeping our fingers crossed that he will get a positive announcement and all of the funding required to make Waterford city the best place in which to live, work and grow old.
It is an absolute privilege to be able to reinstate Senator Warfield's Bill. I know Sinn Féin will be very hopeful that many young people aged 16 and 17 will be supportive of its policies. It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we speak the language and talk about the topics in which our young people are interested. If we do not, we will be left wondering and scratching our heads as to the reason they do not express an interest in politics. When we talk about the topics they want to talk about, and listen to the issues they want us to hear about, they are very much engaged. I look forward to the debate on Committee Stage.
With regard to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage not being in attendance on Monday last, to be fair, it is true that all Ministers, if their diaries allow it, facilitated every debate we have had in this House for the past number of months. I am very grateful for that because they are busy and times are different. Obviously, the Minister's diary did not allow him to attend but the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, was very welcome here on Monday.
I do not think Senator McGahon had a note when he spoke so passionately about the late Senator Billy Fox. I thank him for putting that on the record of the House. I would be very much supportive of it if a proposal could be made to either the commission or the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to remember our former Member in all his glory and for everything he represented.
Senator Dooley referred to eating disorders. Sometimes we think that these niche issues only affect a very small number of children and adults. If everybody who has been affected by an eating disorder stood up, we would be shocked by the extent of the issue. In the entire country, we have six beds to look after people dealing with the issue. We have spoken about this previously in terms of issues relating specifically to maternal health. If we do not put resources behind this issue we are sending out the message that we are not serious about dealing with it. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, is very serious about it. She has made significant inroads in her Department despite the fact that she has only been in it for the past seven months so I look forward to her having an impact. However, I will request a debate on eating disorders and the associated supports that are needed. Senators Dooley and Conway raised the recent furore around the retention of personnel on the Future of Media Commission. Without naming any names, I am on record as having an issue with it and I have written to the Taoiseach about it. We need a fair, transparent, open, ethical and supported media to support not only the flow of truthful information and to dispel the disinformation that is so prevalent in Irish society today, but to support our democracy. If anything undermines the body of work that this commission is undertaking then it is incumbent on the person to reflect on their position and to think more about the body of work, ethics and the recommendations that are going to be made.
I sent an email to Senator Bacik yesterday saying "Bravo". Some of the Bills coming from the Labour Party are very thoughtful and considerate. I wish her every success and hope everybody gets behind her Bill. One of the first things that struck me when I had the privilege of becoming the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection was the case of young woman whose baby had been born prematurely and who had remained in hospital. She did not even have the opportunity to push her baby in a pram in the sunshine before her maternity leave had run out. Our answer to her at the time, and as it is in this House, was to go on sick leave and get a doctor’s certificate. We find workarounds for problems women apparently bring to society. We do not need to find workarounds; we need to fix the problems. I wish the Senator every success with her Bill and I hope she will get full support from everybody for it.
Senator Conway, as I mentioned, brought up The Future of Media Commission. Senator Keogan brought up the frustrations over vaccinations and we probably all share her frustrations. The slow pace is a real frustration for everybody, particularly for those who are in the queue waiting for their dates. It is unfair, however, to blame the slippages in delivery on any member of NPHET or on the HSE because, to be fair to them, we have had 17 different slippages of deliveries in the past number of months. Every time that information changes, the health authorities change their plan, which is the best they can do. This is frustrating for people because they think that they are going to get the call next week or next month and then it slips and they do not know when they will receive their call. I do not know how this can be managed in a better way, other than to keep people updated once the information changes. I believe Paul Reid is doing his absolute best on that. When the flow starts, it will fill us with inspiration and confidence that we will be getting out of this hole, which we have been in for the past 12 months, very quickly.
Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke with pride about the 7,000 young people in Northern Ireland who are learning through the medium of the Irish language. I look forward to the day when citizens in the North will have secondary schools like we have in the Republic. The Irish language is something that should be cherished and taught differently, and perhaps the whole immersion model is one that works very well. What is very clear to me, and is the opinion of many people in the Republic of Ireland, is the fact that we spend 13 to 14 years in school learning Irish but at the end of it, some of us are not capable of speaking two sentences or with the right pronunciation. That is a real testament that we must be doing something wrong. I congratulate the Senator on the 50 years Irish-medium primary school achievement and on his beautiful use of the Irish language.
Senators Pauline O’Reilly and Kyne both raised the very welcome funding urban regeneration. This is a real sign this Government, as was the last one which brought about Project Ireland 2040, is really intent on ensuring that we have balance in development not just in our major cities but in the regions. Senator O’Reilly also spoke about projects. Senator Kyne must have been up very early this morning because the video he had was out at cock crow, so he was probably up before the birds. This again shows how immeasurably proud he is of his towns, villages and the developments and I wish him every success in the completion of those projects.
Senator Moynihan’s spoke about the undocumented in the US. The Cathaoirleach and I had the pleasure of meeting with American legislators this week and this was a topic that came up on a number of occasions. Senator Moynihan reflected on the undocumented in Ireland. This is something which different groups try to address and which was brought home very powerfully and clearly to me when we closed down the country this day 12 months ago. A large number of people arrived at Intreo offices who did not even have personal public service, PPS, numbers and who did not exist as far as the State was concerned.Yet, we looked after them. I thank the staff in the Intreo offices for making sure they were looked after. Some 7,000 people came to the offices but that tells me that some 7,000 more were probably afraid to come. We do not know how they survived, or what they survived on, for the past 12 months. We need to get serious about recognising all of them and addressing this issue.
Senator Boyhan talked about the Irish diaspora, all of our ambassadors and the increase in trade. He spoke specifically about Iran and Tehran but it was also a reflection on how we can increase our trade in many different places in the world. I look forward to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, coming to the House to talk about the plans for the future.
Senator O'Loughlin spoke about the Curragh. I encourage everybody to give their thoughts and advice to the consultation as to how to better use the plains and protect them. She also raised the need for a secondary school there.
Two of our female Senators brought up the very sad passing of Sarah Everard. There has been much talk in the last few days about it not being all men and that there are a tremendous number of good people in the world. That is true. However, the difficulty for women is that men do not go around wearing red hats and blue hats. We do not know the difference. What we have to do as women is make sure we protect ourselves. On Twitter the other day, Dearbhail McDonald said, "If it’s too unsafe for women to walk alone, day or night, the problem is not women". We all need to reflect on that.