Friday, 26 March 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the early signature of the Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2021, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland) Bill 2018 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to adjourn at 2 p.m. if not previously concluded; No. 3, Residential Tenancies Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 2.15 p.m. and to conclude at 4 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 not less than six minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 4, Private Members' business, Quality in Public Procurement (Contract Preparation and Award Criteria) Bill 2021 – Second Stage, to be taken at 4.15 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 3, with the time allocated for the debate not to exceed two hours.
I support the Order of Business as outlined by the Leader. The first issue I wish to raise, which I have no doubt it is uppermost in the minds of all Senators, is the awful situation that began to unfold yesterday, culminating in an "RTÉ Investigates" programme broadcast yesterday evening from which we learned that various elements of Departments gathered and shared information relating to the families of autistic children in particular situations. As the story started to unfold yesterday, I was both appalled and in shock. Listening to Shane Corr outline last night what happened really added to the sense of absolute disappointment that something like this did happen. Apparently, it has been happening since 1996. To me, it is a complete breach of trust and abuse of power. The fact that information on siblings and parents was being collected is absolutely abhorrent. As Members are aware, the families of those with disabilities are particularly vulnerable and this practice preyed on that vulnerability. I ask the Leader to seek a completely independent investigation into this issue. It is important that we have such an investigation and that we have confidence in the systems going forward.
I also wish to raise an issue relating to Turkey.Turkey decided to withdraw from the Council of Europe's Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, at the weekend. Coincidentally, Turkey was the first country to sign it. It is a further blow to combatting violence against women, following the violent and brutal murder of Sarah Everard, in particular. Withdrawing from the convention leaves women in Turkey, who have faced increasing levels of violence over recent decades, very vulnerable. Abandoning this international accord under the cover of conservative values is deeply upsetting. We must show solidarity. I ask the Leader to write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and to the Turkish Ambassador, as I have done, to outline our outrage at this.
International Women's Day was two weeks ago. One of the most inspirational women I know is Ms Maggie Owens from Athy, County Kildare. Ms Owens, who is deaf, is a teacher in St. Joseph's School for Deaf Boys in Cabra. She has been a wonderful advocate for the deaf community and taught people in Athy to sign. When she contacted me about the school losing its speech therapist, I intervened with the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte. She agreed straightaway to ensure the retention but the HSE must follow through.
It is interesting the People's Republic of China has decided to sanction UK Members of Parliament for criticising what has happened to the Uighur people and has banned them from travelling to China. Those of us in this House who have been strong on that issue have not come to the attention of the people in Beijing yet but nobody should be intimidated by this kind of behaviour. I have not forgotten about Mr. Richard O'Halloran and I will ask the House to consider the motion on the Order Paper in the near future.
We are in the run up to two by-elections to this House. It is small electorate of approximately 220 Members of the Oireachtas. Even though the electorate is small, it does not mean there is any reason to depart from what the Constitution and the law of the land require, that is, that there would be complete secrecy and people's capacity to vote in the election would be completely secret. I hope the Leader agrees with me that everybody is entitled to be confident that no pressure will be put on anybody to indicate how he or she has voted. It is a secret ballot. Although people can belong to different groupings and parties, they cannot be asked to disclose how they have voted. The Constitution and the law require they not be put under pressure to disclose how they have voted.
The Constitution states the ballot must be secret. The 1947 Act states it is serious criminal offence to put pressure on anybody to show or disclose how he or she has marked his or her ballot. It would be a serious matter if it were to happen. I hope it will not happen and I want to make the law clear to everybody in this House. Voting is different for by-elections to the Seanad from voting in elections to the Seanad following general elections but the same basic entitlement and duty of secrecy applies.
Everybody has the right to vote in accordance with his or her preference. Secrecy is a right and duty of every Member of the Oireachtas. Every Member can vote in accordance with what he or she considers correct with the guarantee it will not prejudice him or her.
I too want to express my horror at what we learned in the "RTÉ Investigates" programme last night. It is important to remember that at the heart of all this are families with children, some of whom are the most vulnerable children in our State, and those families' quest to try to vindicate their children's essential constitutional right to an appropriate education in this country. Yet, last night, we heard an account whereby the Department of Health chose to spend valuable resources, time and money on an intelligence-gathering exercise on these families. These resources could have been better spent on trying to resolve the issues faced by these children. It must be an awful kick in the teeth to those within our health and education service trying to do their level best for these vulnerable children.
There are many questions here, but they boil down to why the Department was gathering this intelligence to start with and what it was doing with that information. There is a broader question here about culture. How can a culture be allowed develop within a Department that if one goes up against the State, one effectively does so at one's peril? Why would the litigation unit of a Department gather information on family members' alcoholism, obesity and their overall mental state? These are only some of the references we saw last night.
It is important to say that this is not the first time we have seen Departments attempt to abuse their position of power and trust to undermine a person's case. Indeed, we have very many famous examples of that. It is also not the first time we have seen a Department attempt to use information about a parent to undermine the case of a child. Later today, the Seanad will debate the Committee Stage of a very important Bill initiated by my colleague, Senator Ivana Bacik, to give naturalisation rights to children born here.
I recall the case of a child I would much rather not talk about today, but it is important to remind the House about it. This child's family was threatened with deportation three years ago. During that time, officials within the Department of Justice leaked information to the media designed to damage and discredit the family. It leaked information on how the mother came into the country and on her passport application process. Thankfully, that child was granted leave to remain. However, we are at a juncture in this State at the moment where there are far too many challenges to its legitimacy from the far right. We cannot allow a culture similar to what we saw last night to continue.
There are many thousands of public sector workers and civil servants who are doing an excellent job, day in, day out. We cannot allow them to be stained by the activities of a tiny minority but we need to get rid of this culture.
I share the concerns of colleagues on the deeply shocking revelations in last night's "RTÉ Investigates" programme. I am conscious that Deputy Seán Crowe, the Chair of the Joint Committee on Health, is convening that committee this afternoon to consider how it will react and take next steps on this issue. I have no doubt it is something the Seanad will revisit in the coming period.
In my lifetime I do not recall a period quite like the one we are living through, in which the constitutional future of this country is debated with such frequency and fluency in so many different quarters. There is not a week that goes by that the popularity of a united Ireland is not tested in an opinion poll or reflected in an article in a newspaper, in academic research or across traditional and social media platforms.
The debate is correctly covering all aspects of society. These include: the need for an independent Ireland to be based on equality, inclusion and human rights; the need to involve the people of Ireland by holding referendums North and South; the setting up of a citizens' assembly to provide a venue to debate how we plan the future; the views of the unionist, loyalist and Protestant people and their place in a new independent Ireland; the economic benefits of independence and the importance of the economy being climate-centred; the future of the Irish language; the need for an Irish national health service now; and what kind of political structures there should be in a new Ireland. Should there be a single parliament based here in Dublin or a federated system with parliaments in Belfast and Dublin?
The debate has energy, vision, novel ideas and optimism. It is national and involves all ages and genders.Take as an example the past five days alone, where we got a glimpse of the energy in the debate on the future of this country. We saw it on RTÉ's "Claire Byrne Live" when 90 minutes were devoted on national television to discussing the pros and cons of a united Ireland. We saw it in the Oireachtas at Tuesday's meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement when the eminent legal experts Professor Colin Harvey and Mr. Mark Bassett presented their roadmap to unity. We saw it in the thorough and thoughtful speech by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan of Fianna Fáil, entitled "The political, economic and legal consequences of Irish reunification". Our colleague, Senator McDowell, has written similar papers. We saw it in the major conference, involving eight councils from Dublin to Belfast and all in between, promoting the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor. We saw it in the latest document launched by Ireland's Future, which explored the economic benefits of reunification. Just yesterday, we saw it in the shared island unit's discussion about the need for a citizens' assembly on this issue.
The nation is speaking about our country's future. Let us make our contribution to this debate. At a critical time when Brexit was threatening to destabilise the two economies on this island, the Seanad set up a committee to investigate the implications of Brexit. Its report made a valuable contribution to mapping a way calmly through threats and settling troubled minds across the country. The Seanad should set up a new Ireland committee to make its contribution to mapping a way calmly from where we are now to a new and independent society. That is a suggestion which resonated with the Leader of the previous Seanad as well as the leaders of other groups. This is a dynamic debate and we have a role to play. We should have a thoughtful exchange about how we play it.
I will be delighted to support Senator Higgins's Private Members' Bill when it is before the House today. It will put quality at the heart of the procurement process and is rightly being called a game changer.
I wish to draw the House's attention to a report that was recently published by Unite the Union, entitled "Hungry Bellies Are Not Equal to Full Bellies: Exploring inequality and deprivation in Ireland". This report addresses the real inequalities that still exist in this country and engaged with groups that worked with people who had been left behind. As we approach discussions later this year - it is actually just around the corner; we do not feel the year going by - on budget 2022, it is important that we know exactly what we are talking about. The report will be of interest to every Senator. I am sorry. I am a little bit nervous and I do not know why. The report was brought about by a comment made in this House during a debate on social protection. Senator Buttimer highlighted a newspaper article and other reports claiming that we were a richer and more economically equal people, but we all know that is not true. This report corrects the record.
When we discuss economic equality, we cannot refer to income alone. The Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, lists seven factors: income, wealth, access to public services, taxation, the make-up of families, personal capacities and the cost of goods and services. When we discuss economic equality, let us talk about the two-tier health system, education, housing and the privatisation of people in homelessness and families in emergency accommodation. Let us talk about how Traveller women live 12 years less than women in the general population and Traveller men live 15 years less than men in the general population. Let us talk about the national childcare scheme, the lone parents and families in greater need, and the hundreds of people, including children, that voluntary organisations are feeding every day. Let us talk about how much money people have in their pockets at the end of the month. This year, people in Donegal once again have the lowest level of disposable income.I do not have time to finish. The issue of economic inequality was brought before the House last December. We need to address some of these inequalities and look at the issue because it is so real. We are far from being an equal Ireland either economically or more generally.
I propose we consider catch-all legislation regarding the renewal of any business or profession that requires a State licence or certificate. During the Covid pandemic, many businesses have been closed and for a long time. The State still requires closed businesses to comply with regulations and standards. If a business has met required such standards in 2019, the least we can do in 2021 is to introduce a waiver through catch-all legislation. I spoke briefly to my good friend, Senator McDowell, and he concurred. It would be practical for everyone and is a measure we should look at. The people and businesses have had a very hard time. This is a small thing where we can meet businesses, business people and professionals halfway. Anyone, be he or she a publican, an auctioneer, a healthcare staff member or a builder, works to some State regulation or certificate. This suggestion should be looked at urgently and I ask the Leader to bring it to the Taoiseach from this House and progress it.
Lá lus an chromchinn sona daoibh. I hope everyone knows what that meant. I thank the Irish Cancer Society for everything it does. My mum had oral cancer over ten years ago and we are very lucky to have her. She lives with chronic pain but she is with us and she fights every day because she wants to see her grandkids grow up and she wants to give out to her own kids. She wants to be a typical Irish mammy. The Irish Cancer Society provides counselling, a support line, volunteer driving, research and so much. It is a lifeline to families like mine and others around the country.
Another organisation that has not stopped throughout the Covid pandemic is Foróige. Foróige in Dublin West is everything one would want youth services to be, they are enjoyable and empowering for young people. It has continued its targeted youth services and has helped incredibly vulnerable families and children. It has innovated through lockdown, it has planned new youth clubs including one with me for Carpenterstown, which I hope will start soon. If there is an opportunity when it comes to changing restrictions - I do not mean lifting them - we need to look at the programme groups and whether they can meet up. It has suggested meeting in groups of two or three with a staff member, just to have some sort of interaction. While Members will have seen how compliance is shifting, this would be an example of a controlled environment. Fine Gael as a party has discussed youth and whether we need a discussion on our youth. We know they are struggling. I am reiterating what I said on Monday about being conservative and compassionate, in that we can still have restrictions while also relieving certain pressure points.
I also wish to back up the remarks of my party colleague, Deputy Dillon, about maternity services in hospitals. If there are vaccines for front-line staff, can we consider the lifting of restrictions on partners in the hospitals?
Lá lus an chromchinn sona daoibh go léir. It is Daffodil Day today. As my friend said, many of us have been touched with cancer. The Irish Cancer Society does an unbelievable job. When one is brought into the cancer realm, one's whole life changes. One is always asking questions and learning about blood and platelet counts. It is another world that many families across the country are living with. It is a hard world. The Irish Cancer Society makes it that little bit easier because its volunteers help by driving patients to chemotherapy appointments and it offers counselling supports. It is an unbelievable organisation. If people text 5300 and give €6 to the Irish Cancer Society, it is well worth it.
I also raise the issue of the "RTÉ Investigates" programme. It was harrowing and a kick in the face for all of the parents with children with autism spectrum disorder and the organisations that are fighting so hard for services for their children. We know that defendants in legal actions can share information but this goes much further. It is completely reprehensible, morally and ethically. It is illegal. The Leader needs to go back to the Minister to make sure this is no longer happening. It cannot happen again. These are parents who are fighting for a basic education for their children and this is all going on, secretly and surreptitiously, in the background. It is disgusting. I read that videos of children in a distressed state are being shared by private clinicians. The medical profession must also answer questions in that regard. I am appalled by this and hope that it stops. It was hard to watch and acknowledge that this actually happened. I hope it is not still happening.
I woke this morning to find that once again there has been a fiasco with respect to vaccines. I am talking specifically about the administration of vaccines from the Beacon Hospital to teachers in St. Gerard's School in Bray. I see nothing wrong with vaccinating teachers and, indeed, I believe they should be up there with front-line workers. God Almighty, when there were 20 spare vaccines available in the Beacon Hospital, which is surrounded by GP surgeries within walking distance and public sector national and secondary schools, the hospital went ten miles out to Bray to find the staff of the private school that the children of the chief executive officer attend. It is absolutely outrageous. When one thinks about the people in this country who are going the extra mile-----
I accept the Leas-Chathaoirleach's point. I know a number of elderly people who are sitting at home desperately waiting for their turn. Dozens of them live in the Sandyford area, yet this is what happens. What control is there?
There was a load of spin about the matter on the radio this morning. It was not coming from the Government, but it was spin nonetheless. It is outrageous that this carry-on is allowed to take place. We are hearing about vaccine nationalism. Are we now getting down to the sectoral vaccine system where those with power and privilege in this country can decide who will and who will not receive a vaccine? There are Garda stations within walking distance in two directions of the Beacon Hospital. Those members of the Garda are all front-line workers. Why were they not considered? It is an absolute outrage. This requires the HSE to put a system in place so that if there are spare doses of the vaccine available, there should be a list available in every GP's office of people who can be called in at short notice to receive one. We need the Minister for Health to make a statement about this matter today.
Today, Daffodil Day, is important. In a normal scenario, we would be seeing daffodils sold on every street corner. This day is an important day for society. We all have stories we could tell about what the Irish Cancer Society has done for our families and how great a support it has been to them. I would like to mention my brother Ger, who died of skin cancer at the age of 37. The Irish Cancer Society was a great support at the time and the nurses in particular were just amazing. It is important that we acknowledge their work and do our best to contribute today in these unusual circumstances.
We will have to start planning for what the healthcare system will be like when we move away from the Covid-19 crisis. We have many issues that need to be addressed. The backlogs and waiting lists are matters we have to start talking about now. Mental health will be major issue in both rural and urban areas. We need to start putting in place a strategy to work through this crisis and determine how the healthcare system will be able to provide for society.
During the week, I came across a case involving speech therapy for a three-year-old child. The individual is literally on Zoom calls for six weeks and then put at the back of the list again. He or she must start all over again. Trying to do speech therapy with a three-year-old child on a Zoom call is an unusual task, to say the very least. The staff are trying, however. They really are and they are doing their best but we really need to focus on determining the plan for the next 18 months so we will have all the services. There is a great need for the services because of the unfortunate crisis we are fighting.
I also want to raise the outrageous news that leftover vaccines from the Beacon Hospital were given to teachers at the private school of the CEO's children. Nobody wants to see vaccines wasted but it seems that people are treating vaccines in the way in which some might treat all-Ireland tickets; it is about connections and who one knows rather than priority and need. The news story, concerning a private school, a private hospital and connections, has all the ingredients of an Ireland that most of us want to see the back of. We certainly thought it was not in operation during this pandemic, when we have been told we are all in it together.
The Beacon Hospital could have contacted a much nearer school, such as St. Michael's House, a special education school, or even category-4 Beacon patients who live nearby. We know from personal stories on social media today that the Beacon did not do so. One person whose father is receiving treatment in the Beacon for category-4 cancer has no information on when he will be getting his vaccination. Another cancer patient in the Beacon has no sign of a vaccine. I would like to know if every single cleaner and retail worker in the Beacon was vaccinated when the hospital authorities decided to go 14 km down the road to give vaccines to teachers at a private school. I have no objection to teachers being vaccinated but specially picking the private school that the CEO's children attend is a disgrace. It is disgusting.
It is disgusting, immoral and antisocial. Vaccination should be based on need and risk, not on who knows whom. We should not tolerate what happened, especially when we have a lacklustre vaccine programme whose targets and dates are constantly moving. The CEO of the Beacon Hospital should come in and answer questions on what happened in this case. The Minister for Health needs to come in and address us on the issue of the vaccine programme.
I point out again, because it is important, that the Senator and all other Senators should be cautious in referring to a person outside the House who is not in a position to defend himself or herself. We adopted Standing Orders to that effect last December, namely, Standing Orders 49A, 49B and 49C. The Senators should note and be aware of them so as not to be in breach of them. Our next speaker is Senator Fitzpatrick.
I will adhere to the Standing Orders but there is a consensus in this House that what happened is unacceptable, particularly if it happened in the way it is being portrayed in the media.The legitimate questions that are being asked must be answered. If the Leader, on behalf of the House, can ask those questions directly of the CEO of the HSE and the CEO of whatever organisation it is that operated in that way, which we all recognise as being certainly questionable but potentially-----
Absolutely, I did not mention it.
On a more positive note, normally I would be standing in Cabra collecting money for the Irish Cancer Society. I am delighted to be here. I wish I was standing on the streets like thousands of other people who give of their time voluntarily for the society and cancer research. This has been a hard year for all of us, and particularly hard for cancer sufferers and their carers, be they family members or professional carers. Cancer research is incredibly important. As a House, let us encourage everyone to support Daffodil Day today and cancer research.
We are all looking for a little hope. On a more positive note, the meetings that have been taking place and an indication that the target is to have 80% of the population vaccinated by the end of June give us all hope. We all want to cling to that hope but we also want to find a path to get us beyond where we are today. When the Cabinet sub-committee and the full Cabinet meet next week to decide, there will have to consider many just causes. Young people, in particular, have found this very difficult. Many of them are finding it hard to understand how they can be expected to sit in a classroom for eight hours with a mask but not allowed to engage in organised sporting activities outdoors. When organised outdoor sporting activities were taking place, more than 250,000 Covid compliance forms were being submitted every week. There is the construction industry as well. The housing crisis has not gone away and it is impacting our Covid numbers as well. The construction sector has proven itself to be safe and I ask the Leader to ask the Cabinet sub-committee to consider reopening it.
I echo the comments with regard to what we have read in the newspapers this morning. The CEO of the HSE should answer whatever questions we have.
I want to raise an important issue in my area, which is turbary rights, Bord na Móna and all that goes with it. Many families in the midlands and throughout the country have such rights and have cut turf for generations, and they are entitled to a just transition. I ask that Mr. Kieran Mulvey, who is the just transition commissioner, be brought in and asked to mediate on this issue and that he would be part of the peat consultation group. Mr. Mulvey has excellent experience in this area. Given he has been appointed as the just transition commissioner, I ask that that would happen.
Today, my children have left school. Many schools have closed at 12 o'clock today for the Easter break. I am aware that many schools are sending home their schoolbooks out of fear that with the rising Covid numbers, they might not reopen on 12 April. That cannot be allowed to happen. A strong message needs to go out that we must have a quieter Easter to ensure a return to school by all children, including those with special needs. This is the only country in western Europe where children were not at school and it is incumbent on Fórsa and the INTO to come out and strongly state that this will not happen again should any issue arise in our schools. It is extremely important. I have been contacted by parents, one of whom stated:
I think it would be impossible to quantify the amount of commitment and dedication required to raise a child with complex needs. All of us families do so without question, we love and value our children dearly. However to continue to do so for their lifetime we do need to retain our support systems, without exception ....
[The SEP programme, which was introduced] has been mostly unsuccessful. It has been near impossible for most families to engage in services of a teacher of SNA to deliver the programme. In-school learning is the proven best choice for our children [and that is the way it must be].
It gives me no pleasure to raise this issue. I thank my colleague, Senator Gavan, who was due to speak today and has given me his speaking time. On 12 February, I raised the issue of funding for the Stardust inquest. I spoke of how the Department of Justice had been warned repeatedly that the legal aid route was not the appropriate mechanism to address an inquest of this size and public importance. Those warnings were ignored. In its wisdom, the Department insisted on going down the legal aid route and called for the families' applications to be processed without delay.
The previous Minister for Justice and Equality, the current Minister for Justice and the Taoiseach are all on the public record giving a commitment that the necessary financial resources would be put in place so that all the families can seek justice for their loved ones. It has now materialised that the families are being subjected to financial eligibility tests to avail of legal aid. It appears that despite the provisions for a waiver in section 29(2) of the Civil Legal Aid Act, the regulations to provide for that waiver have never been enacted.
It now means that not only are some families being denied legal aid, but a distinction is being drawn between the families, which is causing considerable distress. It has brought back all of the awful memories they have of how shoddily the State has treated them; how, after the insulting findings of the Keane inquiry, families scrambled to try to find the money to sue the owners of the Stardust to get justice; and how they were threatened with losing their homes if they continued in that quest for justice. How cruel is it that 40 years later when their hopes had been lifted at the prospect of a fresh inquest, once again the State is putting up barriers to their access to justice?
I ask the Leader of the House to write to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, asking that she bring forward the statutory instrument to address this matter without delay. Financial waivers are not exceptional. They exist in the North, in England and in Wales. However, the Stardust inquest is exceptional. The Minister has it within her gift to finally turn the page on how the State has treated these families.
Today is the national independence day for Bangladesh; in fact, it is the golden jubilee of Bangladesh's independence. I commend the Limerick councillor, Abul Kalam Azad Talukder, on his organisation of a series of events today to mark the contribution of the Bangladeshi community here in Ireland.
We have often discussed in these Houses the impact of the Covid pandemic on young people and we have heard it again today. In our recovery it is essential that we hear the voices of young people. As part of our recovery, we should make this the best little country in the world in which to be a young person or to grow up. That means resourcing our youth organisations and the volunteers who work with young people but also encouraging and empowering young people who want to get involved in activism or politics. We need to look at strengthening our student councils, further empowering Comhairle na nÓg and hearing the student voice in the debates on education and leaving certificate reform.
I particularly salute the youth wings of all our political parties. Labour Youth played a significant role in the Bill relating to the naturalisation of minors which will be taken this afternoon. I know that Young Fine Gael is currently electing its new officers and I congratulate Art O'Mahony on his election as president. The Leader will not be surprised that I am going to celebrate the contribution of Ógra Fianna Fáil, which holds its national conference online this weekend where young men and women will debate issues and elect officers, and will influence my party's policies and those of the Government.
I pay tribute to the outgoing president, Tom Cahill, and all his officers. They have campaigned on issues such as period poverty, access to student grants for asylum seekers, the cost of motor insurance, and an all-island education and research system. They have also campaigned to reduce the voting age to 16 in European and local elections in 2024. I am happy to propose an amendment to the Order of Business that No. 10 be taken before No. 1. We need to look for ways to actively encourage young people to participate as fully as possible in our society, and giving young people the right to vote in the local and European elections in 2024 is a way to go about it.
I apologise for missing my slot earlier and thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for fitting me into my colleague's place.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who attended for my Commencement matter earlier. She used a significant amount of her time to discuss the Department of Education's position on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme that many of us will have seen last night. The programme has left many families with an awful lot of questions despite the statements by both the Department of Education and the Department of Health. I ask the relevant Ministers to engage with all the families concerned because they wonder whether they can trust people when engaging and collaborating with the schools their children attend. We must ensure that families have a sense that they can speak openly, rather than believing everything they say could be potentially used against them in a court of law.
In her response today, the Minister of State indicated that in cases involving litigants, it is reasonable to expect everything that may have gone on within a school to be looked at to see if an individual child's needs were met. While it is right to consider whether a child's needs were met, we must do that not from the point of view of how we protect ourselves and defend our institutions and Departments but how we give the child what he or she needs. We are here to serve the public and children and that must be front and centre, not how we defend ourselves in cases. I am not saying that is what the Ministers are doing but that, unfortunately, there is now a public perception that there is a lack of trust. It is not just a case that justice is done but that it is seen to be done in order that we regain the respect and confidence of families and young people with special needs.
Today is Daffodil Day and I acknowledge the enormous work done by the Irish Cancer Society. Every one of us has been touched by cancer. Today, I remember members of my family who have died from cancer and the work that the Irish Cancer Society did to support people in that regard. I encourage people to donate or buy a daffodil if they can.
I wish to talk about water safety. The seasons are moving from spring towards summer and I hope there will be a slight relaxation of restrictions, although I do not know whether that will happen. Increasingly, I see people swimming in the sea in Seapoint, the Forty Foot bathing area, Hawk Cliff and Killiney beach in my local area. It is important to note that Water Safety Ireland this week asked people to remember how cold the water still is, pointing out that we still have tides, bad weather and high waves and asking people to be extremely careful. I acknowledge the work done by my colleague, Councillor Lola O'Sullivan, in Tramore and her work with Water Safety Ireland. It is important to remind people that if they swim in the sea or are involved in water sports such as paddle boarding, sailing or windsurfing, there are attendant risks and they need to take precautions. They should let people know where they will be, wear the appropriate equipment and know the water and area so that they can protect themselves.
This week, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI, in Dún Laoghaire reported that it has had an increase in demand for its services. In the last week, the RNLI had to rescue people who had been cut off by the tide in Sandymount. As incidents can easily happen, I appeal to people to be careful so that they do not require the help of the Coast Guard, the RNLI or other rescue services because when they do, these services may not be available to help somebody else. We can all take simple steps when in the water to be careful and ensure we do not get into difficulty.
That means "happy Daffodil Day", as the Leas-Cathaoirleach will know given his good grasp of the Irish language.
Like many other Senators today, I dedicate the two minutes available to me to all cancer patients and families who have suffered because of cancer. I think, in particular, of mothers, fathers and many others, including people in my local area, who left us much too soon. They feature strongly in our thoughts today.I also want to talk about the Irish Cancer Society and its volunteers up and down the country. I speak about the fantastic medical professionals, researchers and nurses and the work they do in comforting and helping people. We must also have a little bit of hope. Despite all the adversity I have spoken about, thousands of people are now living longer with cancer or surviving it completely. I think of all the volunteers in our own counties and of Jacqueline Daly of East Galway and Midlands Cancer Support. I ask the Leader to look at that organisation's website, to engage with that lady and to see what she has done for thousands of people throughout the country. There are many other people like her working in a totally voluntary capacity.
The Leader will agree with me that the important thing is to get all of the cancer services back up and running as quickly as possible. We have been told that these will start again in June but it will probably be the end of the year before they are all up and running. We should aim to get them up and running before the end of the summer if at all possible.
I raise today the issue of emergency accommodation for St. Teresa's Special School in Ballinasloe. There are only 115 or so special schools across the country. The challenge here is linked to an issue I have raised already in the House, an issue regarding Scoil an Chroí Naofa, the only DEIS band 1 school in Ballinasloe. It has no capacity to take on another special needs class so St. Teresa's, which handles children with moderate to profound complex needs, has been taking the flak over recent years. Its enrolment has increased from 11 students in 2011 to 27 last year. Despite this, it is operating in the same building. There is no space.
The school made an emergency application for two classrooms. I have engaged with the Department but I ask the Leader to see that this is accelerated. We are already at the end of March. Issues such as this are causing a lot of stress and anxiety for principals across the country. I know the Department and its officials are dealing with hundreds of applications and that Covid has had an impact and caused delays, but we really need a decision made on this. I know of ten students awaiting enrolment in September. There is nowhere in Ballinasloe for them to go.
It is not solely about this area of east Galway. The school caters for people from Roscommon as well. It has a huge catchment area. It has great staff who are doing great work. It opened its doors again only a few weeks ago. It was a joy for children to be able to go back, particularly when the closure of schools had impacted so much on their development. There are also great healthcare staff doing their best in the school. I hope to hear some sort of news in the coming weeks. It would be a relief to the principals to know that there is a plan in place for September.
I second Senator Byrne's amendment to the Order of Business. I will talk about the Irish Cancer Society. I pay tribute to all of those we have lost, those battling cancer and those who will, in the future, get a cancer diagnosis. There has been positive news on this island with the establishment of the All-Ireland Cancer Consortium. Last week saw the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Northern Irish Government, the Irish Government and the US. This consortium is a research organisation which will drive cancer research forward and, it is to be hoped, save many lives in the future.
This year marks 20 years since the foot and mouth disease crisis. The Cooley Peninsula, north Louth and south Armagh were absolutely devastated by the disease. I come from a farming background and I saw the terror and saw our hills empty of flocks. Generations of breeding, going back hundreds of years, were lost and can never be reclaimed. I pay tribute to the farmers who stuck with it and who worked hard to restock our hills in the Cooley Mountains and south Armagh. There are lessons to be learned in respect of the compensation offered. No allowances were made for consequential payments in the Department's Bill. I will also acknowledge a good news story. The Cooley Sheep Breeders Association is the biggest sheep breeders' association in the country.After 20 years of there being no sheep on the peninsula, we now have the largest sheep breeders' association. Every year, on the first Saturday in September, one of the largest sheep sales in the country is held. Perhaps next year, Senators will be able to visit the peninsula and see the finest sheep in the country.
I thank colleagues for the variety of topics raised. To respond to Senator McGreehan, I wish the Cooley sheep breeders and farmers a very good year. It has been difficult for many people. I am happy to accept the Senator's proposed amendment to the Order of Business.
Senator Dolan raised the issue of St. Teresa's Special School in Ballinasloe. The best I can offer her is that I will write to the Minister for Education and ask for an update on the allocation and the negotiations to extend the accommodation of the school. I will send a copy of the response, as soon as it has been received from the Minister, to the Senator's office.
Senator Murphy, among others, talked about cancer services. The least we could do to honour all the people who are battling cancer is to resume cancer services, both day and long term, at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Ward raised the issue of water safety, with the hope and aspiration that some freedoms will be restored to us in the coming weeks and months. I encourage people to be safe and wish safety organisations such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI, continued success in their operations.
A number of colleagues raised the "RTÉ Investigates" programme that was aired last night. We need to have a debate on the subject and I have requested a Minister's presence to allow for that. I will propose later today an amendment to the Order of Business for Monday next. I apologise for doing so yet again. We should have that debate before the forthcoming two-week recess. People will probably be reluctant to listen to what we have to say before there is a full investigation but, given that the statement last night from the Department of Health indicated that there had been an investigation and that it is quite happy to stand over its actions, the least the Minister for Health or a Minister of State at the Department can do is listen to the concerns we will raise on behalf of the tens of thousands of families of children with special needs who were probably shaking with anger when watching the programme. I will revert to Senators later today when I have arranged for business on Monday to be rescheduled.
Senator Byrne talked about party youth wings. We all do as much as we can to encourage youth participation in politics, and one of the best ways we can do that is to allow them to have the franchise and to vote. I accept that some people are probably fearful of that but I do not think anyone should fear people being allowed to express their interest in the running of our country, whatever their age. I will support the Bill he mentioned and accept his amendment.
Senator Boylan raised an issue she feels passionate about. I am aware she has for many years been representing the families she referred to, as have many other politicians. My brain is screaming that I should not feel the need to ask a Minister to sign a statutory instrument. If a problem was unforeseen, it should be resolved, but I am happy to send a letter to the Minister for Justice on behalf of the Senator and the House. I will send a copy of the letter to the Senator's office.
A number of colleagues raised the issue of the misuse of vaccines. I will not refer to any individual or organisation by name. We have deprived the millions of citizens on this island of their liberty for the best part of 12 months, with no end in sight until we can vaccinate all our older and vulnerable citizens and front-line healthcare workers. The misuse and abuse of trust displayed yesterday and the sorry not sorry response given this morning are an absolute disgrace. I have written to Paul Reid and I know how angry he is, but anger is not enough in this case. This is not the first time this has happened but the second. I believe it has happened a second time because there was no retribution the first time it happened and we are still investigating that case. Sorry not sorry is not good enough. We cannot continue to erode people's trust. We have had a slow and relatively unsatisfactory start to our vaccination programme but we still have the support and good will of the vast majority of the people on this island. If there are further examples of abuse of power such as that which was displayed earlier, with the sorry not sorry response issued by the people who abused their power, we will soon find that we will not enjoy the trust and support of the vast majority of the people on this island. It is just not good enough.Many speakers this morning raised the fact that today is Daffodil Day. We would all probably be celebrating it in a much more active way than we are, which is why it is more important that each of us uses every action and stream of communication that we have, as most of us are on different forms of social media, to encourage people to support the Irish Cancer Society's virtual campaign. I do not think there is a family in Ireland that has not been touched either by somebody who has battled cancer or lost a battle with cancer. We all know the enormous contribution the volunteers and the people who work with the Irish Cancer Society extend to the people and their families who are going through that battle. It is one of the most worthy organisations that we have. I know it would be very welcome if we could encourage everybody to support and donate to it.
Senator Davitt referred to a piece of catch-all legislation, which I think would be very worthwhile. I will inquire today of the Taoiseach's Department how we could do something without having to go individually to every single registrar or licensee organisation to see if we can do a roll-over for a year. We had a debate a couple of months ago on the registration of nurses and there was seen to be some reluctance. It would be a really important signal for the State to send to those organisations and it would probably not cost an awful lot of money to say that we are all in this together and this is our part to play. I will follow up on the matter for him today.
In response to the issue raised by Senator Ó Donnghaile, I think this is an exciting time because there does seem to be momentum and energy building on the constitutional future of the island of Ireland. The debate is growing. I am very supportive of the suggestion he made this morning that we could perhaps make time available at our next meeting of the Seanad Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight, CPPO, to have a discussion about establishing a Seanad committee so that we can participate in that debate. What is more important than talking to ourselves, a real conversation needs to be had and we must set out a stall and future vision for a united Ireland. Those conversations need to be had in every single family, school, household, social group and in pubs when they reopen. That conversation needs to be had with every citizen on the island of Ireland. Perhaps we could schedule that at our next meeting of the Seanad CPPO.
Senator McDowell raised the intimidation by China recently exposed yet again. Members are aware that the debate was rescheduled a number of weeks ago at the request of the family of Richard O'Halloran. I am happy to reschedule it, but we must wait for them to give us permission again. I thank the Senator for reminding people of their privilege and freedom in voting in the election in the coming weeks.
Senator O'Loughlin raised Turkey's recent withdrawal from the Council of Europe convention. Her colleague, Senator Chambers, mentioned it at the beginning of the week. I will again express the sentiments that I expressed then. I do not think the language in the statement that issued from the Council of Europe goes far enough. Actions speak louder than words. Our words and our response from a European perspective to Turkey withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention needs to be far stronger if our intent is as we hope it should be.
Senator Byrne moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 10 would be taken before No. 1". The amendment was seconded by Senator McGreehan. The Leader has indicated that she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed to? Agreed.