Monday, 22 March 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion of instruction to the committee regarding amendments to the Family Leave Bill 2021, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, statements on tourism, 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 and those of all Senators not to exceed six minutes, with the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply; No. 3, statements on the national development plan, 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 and those of all Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 4, Family Leave Bill 2021 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 6 p.m.
Before I call Senator Chambers, I want to make a few remarks. We are grateful to the people and country of Greece for their contribution to the world, not only for giving us the meaning and idea of democracy but also for the very word itself. Ireland is unique in having the only capital city with a street named after the Greek language.
This year, Greece celebrates the 200th anniversary of the beginning of its war of independence. Among those who fought in that struggle was General Richard Church, from County Cork, who led the Greek army in the latter stages of the war. He became a Greek citizen and a Greek senator and was a member of Greece's council of state.The year 2021 also marks the 40th anniversary of Greece's membership of the European Union and the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Greece. I am sure all Senators will join me in this very special year for the people in Greece in wishing their ambassador, H.E. Mrs. Simopoulou, and all the Greek people living in Ireland and throughout the world a happy independence day. Zeéto eeméra anexartisías.
I join the Cathaoirleach in celebrating the Greek independence day and commend him on his international approach to being Cathaoirleach of the Seanad. He has touched many countries and friends of Ireland in that role.
I support the Order of Business and there are two matters I want to raise. The first is to put on the record of the House for consideration and reflection by Members Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention a number of days ago, which is highly regrettable. That may not go far enough as the act is abhorrent and it is reprehensible for the country to remove itself from an international convention to protect women and girls from domestic violence and which tries to eradicate the scourge of domestic violence that is moving swiftly across all countries in the world.
It is hard to understand how any country, having signed and ratified the Council of Europe Convention ten years ago would take such a regressive step. We know Turkey is hoping to join the European Union and it has begun that process. I am deeply disappointed by the response of European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and her team, which have really just expressed strong words of regret and disappointment about Turkey's actions but have not taken any further steps. We need a stronger response from the EU to a country like Turkey when it takes these actions. It has consistently taken steps that fly in the face of European Union values. One of the reasons given by the Turkish Government for withdrawing from the convention is that they believe a gender-based approach to this matter undermines family values and promotes homosexuality. These are the words coming from the Turkish Government.
I agree. I use the word "abhorrent" in describing those actions and the EU must take a much stronger stance. Words and platitudes will not suffice in this regard.
A second matter is one which we have grappled with in this Chamber since returning for this term. It is the strategy of living with Covid-19 and what we hope is the imminent lifting of some restrictions after 5 April. It would be wise to give Members in the House an opportunity to have a debate in which we can put the views expressed to us from people right across the country as to how they want to progress in the next phase. My view is that there must be some benefit to receiving the vaccine. For those who are aged 80 and up who are getting vaccines, if they are fully vaccinated, they should be granted additional freedom. I do not mind if I and others in a younger age cohort must be under prolonged restrictions for a little longer and I would certainly not begrudge an older person who is fully vaccinated from getting back out and living. Nobody would begrudge them that.
I see no reason somebody over 80 cannot access the public pool facilities in Castlebar, for example, which are open to elite athletes. It is open and being manned but fully vaccinated people, including front-line healthcare workers, cannot access it. There is a debate to be had in advance of what we hope is the reopening on 5 April. We have lost, to some extent, the public support of current restrictions. There are multiple shebeens operating around the country, people are getting their hair done and others are breaching guidelines because they just cannot cope with the restrictions as they currently stand. We must provide hope and a path out of this, with a debate in the House on how that could be done.
I am on the record of the House as having commended Sinn Féin on its parliamentary contributions but I deplore its continued attack on the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, about alleged leaks. He has acknowledged the act was inappropriate and he has apologised.The Dáil voted confidence in him. He did nothing illegal or corrupt. There was no self-interest, personal gain or personal benefit involved. The act in question did no harm and conferred no advantage on anyone. The material involved was not a Cabinet document or a Cabinet secret. It was not classified. Almost all the information had already been placed in the public domain by the HSE, the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, and the Government. This is largely taken from the Tánaiste's statement but I have not seen anybody challenging him. If they have, I would like to hear about it. Now, apparently, he is receiving death threats, some of them homophobic in nature. I absolutely deplore this and call on Sinn Féin to stop what it is doing at once because it is bringing political life into disrepute.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his comments about Greece's national day and echo them.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to take No. 12 to introduce my Organisation of Working Time (Reproductive Health Related Leave) Bill before No. 1. I have spoken about this legislation before. Colleagues will know that much of the Bill is largely technical and designed to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 and the statutory framework relating to it. The key substantive provision in the Bill is to provide for the first time for explicit recognition for reproductive health related matters where they require leave, such as early miscarriage and IVF treatments, and to provide a small amount of paid leave for that. I commend the work of the INTO and, in particular, Councillor Alison Gilliland, with whom I have worked over a couple of years to bring this Bill forward.
I thank the Leader for giving Government time for the Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland) Bill 2018, which passed Second Stage in this House and is currently on Committee Stage. It is a Labour Party Private Members' Bill that provides a route to citizenship for children born in Ireland. I have been glad to receive cross-party support from Government colleagues on it but I am disappointed to learn it will be opposed by Government when it Committee Stage is taken on Friday. I ask the Leader to speak with the Minister for Justice to see if she can enable it to go through to Report Stage. She has been collegiate in working with me on bringing forward aspects of the legislation. Aspects of it will be brought into law later this year but I would be disappointed to see it being voted down by Government parties, particularly as Fianna Fáil and Green Party senators had supported it on Second Stage when it was last voted upon by the previous Seanad.
I support calls for a debate on the so-called living with Covid framework and the Government's plan for the future. It is interesting to hear Government Senators speak on the need to give people hope. That is quite right. All of us are utterly dismayed and dejected at the ongoing high level of figures, at last night's figure of over 700 confirmed infections and at the number of tragic deaths that are still occurring. Our schools are not yet fully open. Senator Chambers is right that there should be a vaccine bonus for those who are fully vaccinated but we need as a priority to make sure all our children get back to schools. It is a very short summer term, only eight weeks in secondary schools, as anyone who has children in secondary school will be well aware. It is important that children from first to fourth year who have been deprived of classes until now, other than online, get back to school on 12 April. That has to be a priority and after that we need a plan and a timeframe from Government to give people hope. We have been enduring these restrictions for three months. We should have implemented much tougher ones earlier. It is good to see mandatory hotel quarantine now in place but what people need is even a tentative timeframe to bring us through this next difficult phase.
As Easter week approaches, I commend the initiative of Senator Keogan and others, who have arranged a Covid-compliant and safe press call tomorrow to ask the Government if it is doing enough to allow people of worship to return to their churches. Yesterday, the Bishop of Killaloe, Reverend Doctor Fintan Monahan, said people of faith have been shocked by the closure of our churches for public worship. It is scientifically proven that religion and prayers can help. Psychological studies have indicated great comfort for those who have a religious faith they can tap into in a time of crisis.Faith and the practice of faith are potentially a powerful asset in times of challenge and upheaval. There are some immense psychological benefits from religious practice, including social connection and a sense of belonging, moral compass and an enhanced sense of meaning to life. Science finds it difficult to identify the exact beneficial component at play, as one can be spiritual but not necessarily religious and religious but necessarily spiritual. Those who have a faith can get solace from it and it can help to sustain their mental health. The imposition of blanket rules is far too blunt and potentially very damaging. Blanket closures of all religious gatherings can flatten the spirit of resilience.
Some of our churches are very large buildings with high ceilings. I am not suggesting packing people into small oratories but a highly nuanced approach. At the weekend, an independent scientific advocacy group spoke about how we can tackle Covid through a nuanced approach. Are engineers assessing the space and ventilation in some of our larger churches? Why can only ten people sit in the Pro-Cathedral and pray? I remain unconvinced that the Government has explored all possible feasible options or has done all in its power to allow people to return to worship in a safe way at a time when they are clinging to their faith and when it can give them sustenance, comfort and solace. It raises the greater question as to whether the Government fully appreciates how intrinsically beneficial faith is and the strength people can take from their faith at a time of challenge and crisis.
I condemn any threats that have been made against any elected representatives. We all agree such threats are inappropriate and should be condemned by everybody, no matter what political background we come from.
I will address the 105th anniversary of the Easter Rising. I commend the work of my colleague in Dáil Éireann, Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh, on a Private Member's Bill to create a cultural quarter on the Moore Street and surrounding areas battlefield site. The Ceathrú Chultúir 1916 Bill 2021, which is a vision for Moore Street, will be debated on Second Stage in the Dáil on Wednesday. I recommend that everyone take time to read the detailed proposal for this hugely important historical site. The Moore Street terrace and laneways are the physical environs of one the seminal chapters in Irish history and our struggle for independence. The hoarding of the land and the initial proposal to destroy this site and create an enormous shopping centre represented the worst of the Celtic tiger excesses. When I brought that proposal to the director of democratic governance at the Council of Europe she could not believe that any State would willingly destroy the historical fabric of its capital city. Even as a person who is not from Dublin, she looked at the map and was able to ask why we would need more retail space when the location is literally surrounded by shopping centres. We have moved on a few years now and while the proposal for retail on the site has been scaled back, it now favours office space. After a year of pandemic, does any Member of this House really believe that Dublin needs more office space?
Deputy Ó Snodaigh's Bill proposes to legally recognise an Ceathrú Chultúir, preserve the built heritage of Moore Street and its curtilage and protect it from destruction. The proposal would also create a cultural quarter around Moore Street, which would boost tourism and footfall and would have a permanent outdoor market. It would give space to the development of art, music and sport and promote Irish heritage, culture, history and language. It would be a living museum to educate and prompt further research into our history. For too long, Dublin's north inner city has been neglected. The creation of an Ceathrú Chultúir would put heritage and culture at the centre of its social and economic regeneration.
I hope the Government will not prevent the progress of this Private Member's Bill. I look forward to the Bill coming before the Seanad in the future. I remind Senators that the proposal is in line with the Green Party proposals for the area.It is also in keeping with a proposal brought before this House in the past by the then Senator and current Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I encourage my colleagues to ask their colleagues in the Dáil not to block the progress of this Private Members' Bill.
I request a debate on sport and Covid-19. I have been working with a number of sports clubs, especially clubs involved in youth sport, for the last number of weeks. All the clubs, from Lourdes Celtic, St. Francis Football Club and clubs in Arklow and Knocklyon, are concerned by the drop-off rate in child engagement on the pitch and even in the Zoom conversations they are setting up. I have written to the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, on this issue and we should have a conversation about it.
The risk of Covid-19 is huge and real but being unable to get children back on to sports pitches in some shape or form is also a risk. In many working class communities, sport is the only way out, whether as a route to university or for those who cannot access academic life. Sport has given chances to many children in our communities. It contributes to harm reduction and keeps children off the streets.
The sports pitch is a sanctuary for many talented children. The closure is having an impact, from younger children experiencing anxiety who are now attending class but still cannot be on an outdoor pitch in pods to 17 and 18-year-olds who were relying on sport to access scholarships for third level universities. Studying at university in the United States on a soccer scholarship has always served as a route out for many children, rather than relying on the leaving certificate.
The clubs have been clear. They are not calling for contact sports or leagues to start again. They are asking for a way to get children back on to the pitch, socially distanced and with all precautions in place, including not having parents on the sidelines. They have put everything in place and want to be able to move as quickly as they can before they lose more children than they should.
I ask the Leader to arrange a discussion on moving away from the fixed date of 5 April. The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, considered how recommendations applied specifically to his Department in terms of addiction services or youth work. The Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, should be given room to consider having particular restrictions in areas under his Department rather than having a fixed date apply across government.
I have been contacted by a number of parents and students who have been impacted by the lack of broadband. These students cannot access their courses or lectures at university due to a lack of broadband or poor quality broadband. Parents scrimped and saved to pay the €3,000 fee to enable their son or daughter to attend college. Unfortunately, this did not happen due to Covid-19 and now they are having difficulty accessing lectures or other material because of poor or non-existent broadband.
It is now March and students are becoming anxious as their examinations approach. They are concerned that having missed so many lectures through no fault of their own, they may fail their exams or not do as well as they normally would because of poor broadband. The matter is beyond the control of students and parents. I call on the Minister and the colleges to clearly state what they are doing or will do for students who find themselves in this position. It is unfair to them and they should not have their future interfered with because of poor quality broadband. I would like some clarity from the Minister and the colleges as to what they can do to assist young people who cannot access their course material because of poor broadband or, in many cases, a lack thereof.
All political parties have indicated their support for wind energy targets to reduce our carbon footprint in their party manifestos over a long number of years. In dealing with communities in my part of the world in Connemara and Galway, concerns have been expressed at various stages at the whole concept, when a project is first mooted, at the planning stage and at the construction stage. Issues have also arisen post-operation, including shadow flicker and noise.
The wind energy development guidelines were put out for consultation in December 2019 as part of the strategic environmental assessment of the project and more than 500 submissions have been received. The review into the guidelines includes key aspects such as sound and noise, visual amenity, amenity set-back distances, shadow flicker, community obligation, community dividend and grid connections.
Fáiltím roimh an t-athbhreithniú ar threoirlínte d'fhuinneamh gaoithe atá idir lámha faoi láthair ach tá an próiseas an-mhall. Bíonn imní ar phobail nuair a beartaítear plean d'fheirm gaoithe. Faoi láthair, tá imní i gceantar an Bhóthair Bhuí in Indreabhán faoi phlean chun feirm gaoithe a thógáil gar do thithe. Tá sé in am treoirlínte feiliúnacha a leagan síos ó thaobh achar ó tithe go dtí tuirbín gaoithe. Tá na tuirbíní ag fáil níos airde agus ba cheart treoirlínte nua a chur i bhfeidhm.
So much of our community, particularly on the west coast where we have the highest wind speeds, includes lands designated as special areas of conservation, SACs, and natural heritage areas, NHAs. It is now time to look at whether some of these lands could be used for wind turbines, subject to site specificity. These could be in areas identified and zoned in the county development plans and the wind strategies to allow for greater set-back distances for current and future homes. Some communities are particularly concerned, as wind turbines grow higher and taller, about the impact they will have on their homes and their children's ability to get planning permission. I ask the Leader for a debate with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on the whole issue of renewable energy and the processes and practices around it.
I commend Senator Martin on mentioning the photocall tomorrow. I call on Members of both Houses to come out to the plinth at 12 o'clock tomorrow to support the reopening of our churches and allow those of all faiths to worship safely.
I will talk this morning about the ugly side of choosing a career in politics, specifically the vile criminal abuse, harassment and intimidation that politicians can be subjected to by some individuals. We can all expect a certain amount of jousting in this career in the form of robust debate, hard questions being asked of us and clear answers being demanded. We expect scrutiny and criticism from our political opponents, the media, interested groups and the public. What one does not necessarily expect is to be subjected to campaigns of abuse and terror just for doing one's job and serving the community as best one can.
This type of abuse can even result in a politician and his or her family living in fear and not feeling safe in their own home. The experiences of Independent councillor and Mayor of Galway city, Mike Cubbard, serve as a sobering reminder of how far abuse can go. He and his family have endured an 18-month long campaign of abuse and harassment. Threats that his home will be burned down have been made to him and his family. I understand a Garda investigation is now under way, but I am extremely dismayed by the fact the abuse has seemingly been allowed to continue for so long before it has been taken seriously.
We cannot permit or tolerate this happening to politicians or to anyone for that matter. It is simply unacceptable in a civilised society and in a parliamentary democracy with the rule of law. We must take decisive action to eliminate this kind of abuse and bring perpetrators to justice. We must also ensure that online abuse is tackled aggressively. We owe that to each other, our colleagues, our families and, importantly, to future generations of politicians so they can pursue a career in politics without being in fear.
As we know, last week was a fantastic week for the Irish horse racing industry with the success at Cheltenham of so many trainers, with Rachael Blackmore becoming champion jockey and with Jack Kennedy landing the Gold Cup. Last week was also a bumper week for the bookmaker industry. Unlike other industries, which are despondent that their shops are shut, this was a godsend for the bookmaker industry because it got even more people online gambling on their phones.
Last month, I raised the issue of the pending legislative measures being brought forward by Minister of State, Deputy Browne, surrounding this sector but what is most necessary is the appointment of a gambling regulator, which continues to be stalled. Former Armagh GAA and sports correspondent Oisín McConville, a man who has suffered from gambling addiction, spent the last week on RTÉ television and radio highlighting how one in five teenage boys has an excessive gambling problem. I pay tribute to RTÉ for carrying these items on the "Claire Byrne Live" show and again on "Sunday Sport" on Radio 1 yesterday. However, after Oisín was speaking, the coverage went to the Curragh for the feature race of the opening day of the flat, which was won by a trainer who is local to me, Noel Meade. When the race was over there was a little sound bite to inform the listeners of Radio 1 that coverage of the race in the Curragh had been brought to them courtesy of BoyleSports. One could not make it up. This is why we need to see a regulator in place - the invasive advertising is relentless - but of course where it is most needed is the online space.
As I said, large firms had a bonanza last week with everyone going online. As I enjoy a bet on events like Cheltenham and the Grand National, I went online to place a wager. I had the account set up within two minutes. When the week was over and I went to cash out, here came the issue. Paddy Power suddenly looked for photo ID of me to be sent to that company to prove who I was to get my money back. I could have gambled away my house all week. Paddy Power never wanted my ID in order for me to give it all the money I had but when I went to get my money, it suddenly wanted my passport. Of course my Facebook timeline is now polluted with advertisements by Paddy Power and they wonder why one in five boys in this country has a gambling addiction.
As Oisín McConville said yesterday, we have 1950s legislation for an industry which is tearing up the rule book. We need to see the Minister of State make this move. I ask the Leader to request this of him when he comes before the House in order that the debate is continued, that pressure for change is continued and that we apply the whip firmly to the bookmakers before they make an addict of every young child in this country.
My topic neatly follows on from Senator Cassells's contribution, with which I completely concur. I call on an urgent debate on problem gambling followed by the appointment of a regulator and the gambling control Bill. We need play limits, win or lose limits and the end of pernicious allurements such as free bets. Gambling addiction destroys lives and must be tackled head on. I again ask for that debate.
As the climate change Bill looms, I call for a debate on solutions to carbon reduction and not just on targets. I propose two initiatives. One is that every community should have a co-operatively owned micro-wind energy generator, such as a small turbine, and communal solar panels. This should be modelled on the co-operative model which transformed Ireland at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Second, I have long advocated grant aid or tax reduction for first-time car buyers who buy an electric car. They will develop loyalty and pride and will stay with electric cars. They will gain ownership of the entire climate change project. These are just two suggestions that can go into the mix for an overall debate on the solutions. We accept all the science now. Let us get to the solutions.
I concur with Senator Keogan's initiative and Senator Martin's remarks on religious worship. I commend to the House and to all parties the wisdom of the father of the House, Senator Norris. He gave us a salutary lesson on the preservation of proper standards and democracy in this country.
I second Senator Bacik's amendment to introduce the reproductive health leave Bill to the Order Paper.
In early 2020, under the previous Government, Dr. Conor O'Mahony was asked to undertake a review of LGBTQ parental rights. This review of legal rights after surrogacy and other methods of assisted human reproduction by the special rapporteur for child protection, Dr. Conor O'Mahony, was completed and given to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, on 11 December 2020. It has to be approved by the Cabinet before it can be published. That has not happened yet, however. In contrast to this, Dr. Conor O'Mahony's annual report on child protection was approved and published in quite a short period.
The immediate priority of LGBTQ family rights campaigning groups, like Equality for Children, is to see the review published so they can read and respond to it. LGBT Ireland, in consultation with LGBT families, has proposals for how this Bill could ensure legislative protection for all families. It is vital the Cabinet approves the publishing of this report in order that families affected can review and respond to it. Will the Leader engage with her Cabinet colleagues to get this review published?
The second issue I wish to raise is the impact of the Covid crisis on the mental health of students in third level and further education. It follows on from what Senator Gallagher spoke about. There are students who have now spent practically a year learning and studying from home. There are people who started college this year who have never set foot inside their college campus. We all know about the digital divide and the impact this is having on students' learning experience. The impact of Covid-19 on students' development and learning has undoubtedly been immense.
Will the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and his Department, in consultation with other stakeholders, conduct a survey of the impact of Covid-19 on post second-level students? It would be important for the Minister to get the full picture of the impact that the Covid crisis has had on students' well-being and learning. Without an understanding of this, it will be hard for the Government to adequately respond. I will be writing to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, on this issue but I wanted to flag it here today, as we need to have a conversation about the well-being of third level students and the impact Covid-19 has had on them.
This week marks national tree week. It would be remiss of me not to mention this, my real passion for trees and, in particular, native Irish trees. If one does not plant a tree this week, I would urge one to learn about the folklore behind each and every one of them.
Alder is this month's tree. Alder was seen in old Irish traditions as the first tree from which man sprang. We can blame the alder for that. It was also used to make shields. I always thought the Red Branch Knights of Ulster was a strange name for an ancient Irish army. However, its name in Irish is Craobh Rua. The Red Branch Knights made their shields from alder and when one cuts alder, it turns red. One, therefore, had an army of red branches coming towards one.
On a serious note, will the Leader invite the Minister to the Chamber to debate how we can harness the carbon sequestration of our hedgerows? We have 400,000 km of hedgerows in the country, a positive legacy the British left us when they parcelled up our land. There are really positive environmental issues that we can bring in if we look at what our hedgerows provide. Up to 0.66 to 3.3 tonnes of carbon can be sequestered by 1 ha of hedgerow. Bringing a beef animal to slaughter will only produce 20 kg of carbon. We have to appreciate what our farms are already doing for the environment and give credit to the farmers and hedgerows. A proper hedgerow management plan for each of our farmers in the new rural environment protection scheme is needed.
I want to raise again the issue of the local print media and the difficulties it has because of its declining revenue from advertising. We all know how valuable the local print media is but it is getting no assistance. While there was some reduction in VAT, it needs assistance at this point. I have no problem in saying that it should have the same assistance as the local radio station sector. Some of our finest broadcasters cut their teeth with the local print media.We have many fine local newspapers throughout the length and breadth of the country. I again ask the Leader to bring to the attention of the Minister what can be done so that some assistance would be given at this difficult time for local print media.
Every Member of the House here received a letter recently from Mr. Ken Murray regarding communications. The communications part of Leinster House heretofore had put in place Mr. Murray and Mr. Tim Ryan, who used communicate what had happened in this House and in the other House to the local print media and radio stations. It was a great service for this House. I ask that the commission has a look at this.
A survey is being carried out here in the Oireachtas, seemingly on this issue. There are many new Members in both Houses who did not realise that service was being provided by Mr. Murray and Mr. Ryan. In particular, they gave all of what happened here in these Houses to the local print media. Mr. Murray did the clips. I ask that this service would be brought back into Leinster House because what happens here in the Seanad will be brought directly to the local print media throughout the length and breadth of the country. I would ask that the Cathaoirleach bring that up at the Commission.
Places such as the Pearse Museum in Rathfarnham and Kilmainham Jail in Dublin were long protected and saved by volunteers. Equally, the integrity of Moore Street has been maintained by street traders, working-class Dubliners and small business owners on that street. It has also been saved by campaigners and the relatives of the 1916 leaders. The men and women of Easter week restored our national self-respect and self-dignity decades after an Gorta Mór. They asserted our right to national self-determination in arms and the final surrender was at Moore Street. We have seen recently how structures of national importance can be reduced to rubble. I am glad, therefore, that my colleague and friend, Deputy Ó Snodaigh, has brought forward a proposal. It so happens that that proposal is in line with Fianna Fáil and Green Party policy or previous statements. I, therefore, call on those parties to support this proposal in the Dáil to give recognition to An Ceathrú Chultúir - a Moore Street cultural quarter that would transform that area into a living cultural, residential and casual trading area. I hope the proposal comes to this House. This is in the national interest.
Like others, I ask the Leader to try to organise a debate in this House, possibly next week, on the issue of living with Covid. As we approach the 5 April deadline where we expect to see some changing of restrictions, it would be appropriate that the views of Senators be heard on this important issue. If we are to hold the people with us, there has to be a credible lifting of some of the restrictions. It will be difficult to keep the public with us unless we show them some positive response to what they have achieved over the past number of months.
There is a plateauing of, and perhaps a slight increase in, case numbers but the most vulnerable people are being vaccinated. All those in nursing homes are vaccinated. Those aged over 80 are now being vaccinated and we hope we will get quickly to the over 70s. The important cohort aged between 16 and 69 is en route to being vaccinated.
We have to get to a point - I think the point comes when the over 70s are vaccinated - where we get to open up the economy again. We know there will be cases but the severe illness, hospitalisation and death rates will be well-reduced at that stage.
The restrictions are all about trying to ensure that our hospitals are not overcome. It is not possible to prevent death from Covid or from any other illness and some sight has been lost of that. It is about now ensuring that the hospitals give everyone who gets Covid the best chance to survive.One cannot go any further. What we want to see in the coming days is the lifting of the 5 km restriction. It cannot be to 10 km or just county-wide, but lifted entirely. Sports training for young people has to be back on the agenda. I know from the considerable personal experience of people who have contacted me the toll it is taking on the mental health of young students. Last week, we discussed eating disorders. The incidence of that is increasing. It is all playing into the mental health issues. General construction must return and house repairs and on-off building must be permitted. We need religious services again, albeit in a controlled way. In addition, people like to play a game of golf, and they are generally retirees who will mainly be vaccinated and stay apart. I believe activities such as golf and tennis should be reopened next week.
Nobody is jumping up and down looking for hospitality, pubs, hotels and the like to open. People are prepared to wait for that. This is very important, and I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for the latitude. I hope we can have a debate next week so we can put that firmly on the record and ensure we get considerable movement to keep the Irish people with us.
I am delighted today with the announcement from the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, about the outdoor recreational infrastructure programme. It is worth €6 million. It is wonderful because there is €500,000 for Mote Park in Roscommon. This shows the commitment to regional development, which is crucial. We are currently in lockdown, but we must have ways to kick-start tourism, particularly in towns and villages, when we begin to reopen in safer times. The €500,000 will be available for a cycleway which will link Mote Park in Roscommon to Athleague. I pay tribute to the role of community groups. I refer to volunteer groups that work with the Suck Valley Way, part of the Beara-Breifne Way that goes from Cork to Cavan. It goes through about ten counties. We are also talking about the regeneration teams in local authorities. It is important that we ensure tourism officers, rural recreation officers and the regeneration teams in local authorities are receiving sufficient funding to be able to compete in these applications.
In Roscommon, this is building on funding already announced through the rural development fund, RDF, of approximately €9.2 million for urban regeneration. It points to the fact that when one funds excellent regeneration teams in local authorities, they will win such funding. Again, along with the biodiversity and habitats that are in Mote Park, it is important that communities are supported in the time ahead. Getting out within the 5 km limit is important, but the Mote Park Conservation Group is very good because it has interactive elements on the heritage trail, so one can see it all from one's couch if one cannot get to the park. I thank our regeneration teams and community groups.
I wish to raise a similar issue those raised by Senators Norris and Keogan. All Members will be well aware of the abuse and harassment of elected public representatives, both on social media and offline. It is a problem that appears to have increased significantly in the last number of years both at local and national levels. I will give an example. The current mayor of Galway city, Councillor Mike Cubbard, has been the subject of a particularly disgusting campaign over the last 12 to 18 months. I know Mike very well. I stood in four elections against him and I found him fair and well able to have a political debate. He is the first person in generations in Galway to hold the office, back to back, for a two-year period. There has been impersonation of Mike, lewd messages and death threats. Recently, his parents' house has also received threats. This is very worrying, and I consider it abhorrent. I believe the Garda must take more specific action.
While the example I am discussing happens to be male, we should make it clear that it is even worse for female elected representatives. Research published by National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, last October found that 96% of female politicians have received abusive messages online. Almost 40% of female politicians interviewed reported being threatened with sexual violence, while 25% said they have been verbally abused in public.This is utterly disgusting and, obviously, is highly likely to discourage women from going forward for election. We need to encourage young people to participate in politics and not prevent them from doing so. I do not think there is an easy fix to this problem but we need real examination of the issue. We need to tackle it in some way, whether through tougher penalties from a legal standpoint, some sort of education campaign that could be run in our primary and secondary schools or a combination of both methods. There is an absolute need for us to do so not just for current elected representatives but also for those who will follow in our footsteps. There are many great aspects of being an elected representative; we need to ensure that this growing negative aspect does not overshadow them. I ask the Leader of the House to invite the Minister who will soon have responsibility for justice, Deputy Heather Humphreys, before the House. I am aware the lady is extremely busy, but if she could spare an hour over the coming weeks, I would be very grateful.
I thank Senators for raising the important issue of abuse - a number of Senators have done so - and particularly online abuse and the need for it to be tackled, not just for politicians but for all citizens. We are well aware of the issue of bullying in schools and online. People sending anonymous messages cannot be traced and suffer no consequences. It is an issue not just for this House and the Dáil but for society, and I thank Senators for raising it, particularly as it relates to our Tánaiste, which highlights the issue, and the Mayor of Galway, Mike Cubbard, whom I know well. They are public figures. That is nothing compared with what ordinary citizens, both male and female, are suffering through because of online bullying and abuse. I thank Members for raising the issue.
I agree with Senators' remarks on that matter.
The Covid numbers at the moment are worrying, and it is natural that the Government will feel it could send mixed messages by lifting some restrictions. We are all familiar with the expression "if you give them an inch, they will take a mile", but I think we are at the stage that if we do not try to give people an inch, they will run a mile. I also speak as a mum to two young children who, like others, desperately need to go back to school but who are still suffering with the ongoing restrictions, which have taken a toll. Having one family to meet with outside and to play with in restricted numbers would make a world of difference, as would the resumption of sports and other activities in a highly controlled outdoor environment, instead of what is happening at the moment, and an extension to the 5 km restriction for some breathing space. I am talking about a balance of being conservative but compassionate based on controlled outdoor environments. We could also maximise our available outdoor space better. The parks and amenities within our 5 km limits are under severe pressure, the Phoenix Park and St. Catherine's Park, on different sides of Dublin 15, to name two. We can take pressure off them by utilising other outdoor spaces. I am talking specifically about Dublin Zoo and other amenities such as Fota Wildlife Park that are able to control numbers entering their gates by the hour in a way the public parks just cannot. Dublin Zoo could keep its indoor facilities closed. It could run a one-way system. Tickets could be pre-booked, the benefit of which would be that there would be plenty of space and there would be lots of distance between families. It could open only for people within a 5 km travel radius. As an organisation it is struggling to survive when we could be making use of local outdoor attractions in a controlled manner. Sometimes to get a little we have to give a little, and that is an example.
I echo many of the comments my colleague, Senator Dolan, made on the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme announced this morning by the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys. In my county of Waterford, €370,000 has been allocated to upgrade and enhance a section from Clonea Road to Ballynacourty, a spur off the Waterford greenway, which is a fantastic amenity that I think everybody across the whole country knows about. We certainly look forward in better times, when restrictions are eased, to welcoming many people to the Waterford greenway.It does go to show that investing in our outdoor infrastructure is most important, both for tourism potential and for locals alike. This has particularly been the case throughout Covid when many activities have been restricted to outdoors. It is absolutely fantastic that €15.7 million has now been allocated throughout the entire country across both measures 1, 2 and 3 of the outdoor recreation infrastructure fund. It is money that will be well spent in communities right across the country.
In conjunction with the subject of outdoor sport and activity, speaking as a former physical education teacher, I do believe that it is essential, as Senator Dooley referenced a few moments ago, that as we look to easing restrictions hopefully beyond 5 April 2021 we focus on young people in particular. I am acutely conscious that there are many young people who potentially will not engage in sport following this pandemic because they have missed out on such formative time in being able to engage with their sport or activity. We must lead as a Government and seek to do something in the context of non-contact sport and activity. It is not a case of "if" - we must do it for reasons of mental health and for the ongoing participation of young people in sport following the pandemic.
I thank Senator Cummins. County Waterford is having a particularly good week with regard to Government investment, and I want to congratulate the Senator and commend him for the work he has done on the announcement of funding for Waterford City and County Council last week. I know it was significant and that the Senator had championed the cause for many months. I said last week that he would make us all envious when he spoke about the developments. I am really glad that Waterford City and County Council has been given the money and I look forward to seeing the fruits of that work. I also wish to congratulate the Senator on the announcement of the allocation of extra greenway funding this morning.
A number of colleagues have discussed online abuse. I can only say that it feels like the abuse of politicians at every level has shifted from third gear to maybe sixth gear. Even political sympathisers and supporters seem to think now that it is fair game to give their tuppence worth to our elected representatives. Members have asked for a debate on this issue, and I will certainly try to facilitate that after Easter, in the next number of weeks. It has got to a level where we have all gone down such a dangerous rabbit hole that I do not know where we will end up, looking at the level of discourse. I do not know whether it is true of our male colleagues here today, but I know from my female colleagues that it is commonplace for them to come into this House, open their emails and receive the most vile and disgusting threats. It is as if people do not think that they have any responsibility for the words they use. The discourse appears on a daily basis on all of our social media channels and it is now in our inboxes. It has to stop.
A few weeks ago we talked about encouraging more women and young people into public life. One would want to be absolutely off one's bloody rocker to encourage one's children to come into this life and to have to put up with the abuse that we have to put up with on a daily basis. However, we are the only people who can change it and we must do something about it. It needs to start with a debate with the Minister for Justice in the next few weeks, which I will organise.
A number of other colleagues have asked for a debate on living with Covid-19. Senator Currie is right. I do not know whether it is human nature or just Irish nature that when we are given an inch, we want a mile. We are all seeing and hearing the impact of Covid, first-hand on a daily basis. Senator Hoey talks about its impact on students on a regular basis. I am not just worried for our students; I am worried for our young people and middle-aged people. Senator Chambers is absolutely right that our older generations have been deprived of their liberty for over a year now, while some of us have been able to continue to walk around our villages and go to the supermarket, which seems to have been the only entertainment we have had for the last 12 months. There must be some liberty and freedom with the vaccination. Otherwise we are all going to scratch our heads and wonder what it has all been for, and where the hope that we are so hungrily clinging on to, that is going to be revealed in the number of weeks and months, is actually going to leave us. We only have Friday and Monday, and we do have a full schedule for both of those days next week before Easter. However, I will do my level best to try and get a debate on living with Covid and reopening, before what we hope will be some easing of restrictions announced on 5 April. Senators Warfield and Boylan brought up the Sinn Féin Private Members' Bill in the Dáil. We all welcome the €12.5 million that was announced in the urban regeneration fund for the redevelopment and the maintenance of the historic significance of 14 to 17 Moore Street. How proud we are of our inner city and its heritage, but how proud we must be to actually put our money where our mouth is to make sure we preserve it. I wish the Bill well in the Lower House.
Senator Burke raised the issue of local newspapers. It is not the first time he has brought this up and it seems to be a recurring theme. We all received the very large novel newspaper that came from all of our regional newspapers last week to highlight how significant the deterioration has been in their income, not just revenue from advertising but also from other sources. It is time for the Government to at least match what we have given to local radio stations. I was not aware of the situation of Mr. Ken Murray and Mr. Tim Ryan, or that the commission had ceased what is a vital source of information and flow of information from both this House and the Dáil to our local newspapers and local radio stations. If there is anything I can do to reinstate that, the Senator might let me know what needs to be done. I thank him for raising the matter today.
Senator McGreehan talked about national tree week. I was not aware of the historic nature of the alder tree and I thank her for bringing that up.
Senator Hoey referred to Dr. Conor O'Mahony and the parental rights report. I will try to contact the Minister today to get the Senator a date for when that will be published.
Not just today but frequently over the past number of weeks, Senators Cassells and O'Reilly have talked about the blight that is gambling in this country, its growth and its insidious nature, particularly in the context of young people. We have a debate scheduled with the Minister in the week in which we return after Easter, so I will email both Senators today with the date.
Senator Keogan - Senator Martin also made reference to this - talked about the photocall tomorrow, on which I commend her. One of the saddest things I saw or heard in the last week was Fr. Hughes being fined €500. For those who do not know, Fr. Hughes is a priest from Cavan who has been fined €500 for getting caught with eight people aged over 80 in his church, saying mass. It is probably the most mean-spirited thing I have ever come across in my life. I do not diminish the fact there are restrictions on us all, and I know we all have to obey the rules and the guidelines, but I do not think I have ever heard anything as mean-spirited as fining a priest €500 for saying mass. Again, I think that comes back to the living with Covid debate that we will try to organise between now and then.
Senator Gallagher talked about broadband access. I will write to the Minister to find out if allowances are being made for the fact younger students do not have access in the same way as other students to their course work, and if it will make any material difference to the outcome of their exams.
Senator Kyne talked about wind energy support and our carbon footprint. He is looking for a debate on renewable energy, which I will organise in the next couple of weeks.
Senator Ruane, among others, raised the issue of the need for sport. Again, the Senator will be able to tie that in to the living with Covid debate when we organise it in the next couple of weeks.
Senator Martin spoke about being able to profess a faith and practice a faith. It is not just as easy as saying that people can simply go online to mass and to funerals, which they are doing. It is not the same and we all know it is not the same. For those people whose faith is an enormous part of their lives, we need to realise that it is not just about praying to God but is also about community. It is something they have very much lost and been deprived of in the last 12 months.
I am happy to take Senator Bacik's amendment to the Order of Business. There is no problem with that. I am surprised and upset for the Senator regarding the outcome relating to the Bill, namely, that we have now decided to object to it, having supported it on Second Stage. I will try to get an update from the Minister today and come back to the Senator on that.
I thank Senator Norris for starting off by expressing his confidence in the Tánaiste, as, indeed, the Dáil did last November. I very much hope that issue will be coming to an end very soon.
I want to conclude with the issue raised by Senator Chambers. For many months, we have talked about equality of opportunity for women in all aspects of life in Ireland. I believe we have the support of every Member of this House and of the Oireachtas in respect of the continuity of our ambition to ensure that we have an equality of opportunity in society. By Jove, when we look at the actions of Turkey and other countries that are not far behind it, they literally seem to be going in a retrograde direction.I fully agree with the Senator. While the sentiments of the statement from the Commission were well meaning, words can only do so much and we need to see action. I probably would have far preferred a statement to say that if Turkey wanted to put in jeopardy its application to join the EU, for which it has been preparing in recent years, then it certainly made a great effort towards that last week. The strength of the statement from the European Commission should be far stronger.