Monday, 17 May 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. a1 , motion regarding the report of the Committee of Selection to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 1, Loan Guarantee Schemes Agreements (Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland) Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 3.15 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed eight minutes, and all Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than six minutes to reply to the debate; Private Members' business, No. 62, motion 8, regarding young people, to be taken at 3.30 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours; No. 1a, statements on the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel, to be taken at 6 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 62, motion 8, whichever is the later, and to conclude after 90 minutes with the time allocated to the Minister's opening remarks not to exceed ten minutes, all Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 3, the Affordable Housing Bill 2021 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage to be taken at 7.45 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 2, whichever is the later and, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, to adjourn at 9.45 p.m. or immediately before the Minister is called upon to close the debate, whichever is the earlier, with the time allocated to the Minister's opening remarks not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
I agree with the Order of Business. I thank the Leader for reacting so quickly and timely to organise a debate today on Palestine, Israel and the occupied territories. Many of us in this House will welcome the opportunity to say what we feel and think about the situation.
I commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs on his performance at the meeting of the UN Security Council and his strong comments. It is a shame that the US Administration was not as strong in its response. I condemn utterly the killing of what we know to date as 58 children in these recent attacks. It is appalling and disgusting. We, the international community, should collectively be really worried by the situation and make a strong call to action on all communities across the world.
I wish to again raise the ongoing restrictions at maternity hospitals. We were told last week that there were national guidelines and that partners would be allowed to be present for labour, including induction, for the birth, that there would be visitations afterwards, and that partners would be present for the really important 20-week anomaly scan. We were told that 14 of the 19 maternity units or hospitals were in compliance with national guidelines but my information is that is not correct. Hospitals are taking a very localised view of what labour means when exactly the partner can attend. Fathers and partners are still being left sitting in their cars waiting for a call to come in and mums are in considerable distress because of this situation. It is my information that the Limerick hospital is not providing the 20-week scan to all mums and only provides a scan for at-risk pregnancies, as it determines. It is 2021 and that is unacceptable. Every mother and their baby or babies are entitled to an anomaly scan, which is an essential part of the pregnancy process.
I have seen a letter that Saolta sent to a woman for the University Hospital Galway, where it said that it cannot conduct a full anomaly scan, would limit the appointment to 15 minutes due to social distancing requirements and, therefore, would give a partial anomaly scan. In that case one may as well not give a scan at all. One needs more than 15 minutes to do a scan as anyone who has been through this will testify. Basically, hospitals are fudging the numbers and saying that they conduct anomaly scans for all women when they only give a half-baked scan. They then deny doing so but I have seen it in black in white in a letter that a woman received. I ask that the Leader uses the strength of her office to get an urgent update from the HSE and the Department of Health on the national guidelines, what exactly is meant by "labour" and if we can get a uniform approach across every hospital and unit as to what that means, and not have a localised approach.I must note that five hospitals continue to be completely outside of national guidelines. They are not anywhere near compliant with the guidelines on allowing partners to be present at almost any stage. That must be addressed with urgency.
The final issue that I wish to raise is the ongoing debate around the menopause. It has been a fantastic national conversation. We need to see action. In that regard, I call on the Leader to organise a debate on women's health at the earliest possible opportunity. I ask that we get an update from the Minister on the women's health task force and the work it is doing not just on the menopause, but across all of the women's health issues that we have raised in this House, including fertility, IVF, maternity and endometriosis. There are many issues and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss them.
I welcome the amendment to the Order of Business to provide for a debate on the Palestine situation. I will not say anything more about it now.
In raising the following issue, I am not engaging in being wise after the event. The hacking of the HSE computer system is very serious. The suggestion that other State computer systems are equally vulnerable is frightening, to say the least. One only has to think of the possibility of the social welfare systems and those of the Department of Finance and various other places being interfered with by such hackers, to see how serious the situation is. Again, without attempting to be wise after the event, we have had hints in the last year that HSE ICT systems were, to put it charitably, clunky and difficult to adapt to emergency situations. I am conscious of the fact, going back to the time I was in Government, that the public sector has a difficulty sometimes in commissioning ICT expertise and systems, and is sometimes the victim of overzealous and overpriced proposals. It is weak in that respect.
However, we now live in a society where our dependence on these systems is growing. It is all very well for people to come into this House and talk about climate change and the rest of it, but thinking about it, as we move towards the use of electric cars, electric transport and no solid fuel, all of these things are driving us directly towards a situation where, for instance, electricity will be the absolute lifeline to all of us in the sense that water was to our ancestors. I must be guaranteed that cybersecurity is taken very seriously. We must have guarantees that there are back-up systems and internal firewalls in place, and that the matter is taken as seriously as anything else in the community - as seriously, for instance, as the pandemic. The damage that can be done to us by repeated hacking from China, North Korea, Russia or wherever these people are free to operate with impunity is huge.
I ask the Leader to arrange for a Minister with overall responsibility - perhaps the Minister with responsibility for the public service - to come in here and tell us clearly and in a properly organised way precisely what steps the Government is taking to protect us from calamities. In my view, this is only the first shot in a war and I do not know whether we have any defences in this war or whether we have done anything seriously to counter this threat.
I am sure many Senators have been contacted by students or their parents and families about the SUSI grant and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. Parents and students alike who were close to the threshold limit are being told they no longer qualify for the SUSI grant because they accepted the PUP. I raised this issue last year and asked that the Minister not allow it to happen. In the period since, the Minister has spoken about SUSI a number of times. There has even been a public consultation on SUSI reform. However, somehow he did not see fit to stop students, who have had no drastic change in circumstances, be pushed beyond the threshold for grants simply for accepting the pandemic unemployment payment issued to them by this Government, which they were entitled to take.I do not understand how or why their PUP cannot be disregarded for the purpose of assessing income, as per their other summer or Christmas earnings. I ask that the Minister come in and we have a conversation about it. I do not believe it is acceptable that students are being pushed out of SUSI grants this year.
I wish to briefly bring up the topic of eating disorders. HSE figures show that the number of referrals for eating disorders has increased 66% since March 2020. That is an enormous increase with which the service is in no way able to cope. The services were underfunded and unable to cope long before Covid-19, quite frankly.
I am particularly concerned about eating disorders in young people. In our health service, young people end up falling between cracks and into the wrong services. Indeed, as we saw recently, a teenage girl spent nine weeks in the paediatric unit of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. I will also point out that there are no specialist eating disorder beds in the midlands or the Louth-Meath mental health services.
We need to ensure that intensive early interventions are available throughout the country. An audit of the entire eating disorder system is needed. The provision of beds and inpatient services is not sufficient. An eating disorder is a deeply complex mental illness with a high mortality rate. The nature of social media, and many traditional media, means there is an idolisation of a particular type of body, which is often unhealthy. There is, therefore, also a responsibility on social media companies to play their part. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister into the House for a debate on eating disorders and funding of same.
I will take a moment to flag that 17 May is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, which celebrates LGBTQIA+ people globally and raises awareness to combat discrimination. All LGBTQIA+ people around the world deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and to be able to live free from discrimination, violence and persecution.
In Ireland, we pride ourselves on having progressive laws that protect LGBTQIA+ people. We are considered a beacon internationally. We lead by example but we must also look at how we can improve things here. In particular, we need equal rights for families. Internationally, we must be key players in education, fighting prejudice, discrimination and violence. Transgender rights are human rights; transphobia can get into the sea, and then some. I would like to take a moment to wish happy international day against homophobia, biphobia, interphobia and transphobia to my friends, family and fellow LGBTQIA+ parliamentarians.
I am practically tearing my hair out as, I know, is Senator Chambers, about the inequality in our healthcare services around the country. Time and time again, we are told that things are opening up for women in maternal healthcare and they simply are not. We are not seeing it on the ground. We should not have to take to Instagram, which I have seen countless women do, or Twitter and Facebook to shout for our own rights. It should be a given that there is transparency within our healthcare system with regard to maternity services. I call on the Minister and also the HSE to provide that guidance and reassurance to everyone.
Since I spoke about the issue of the menopause last Tuesday, little did I know that it was going to dominate the airwaves for almost another week after and will probably continue to do so. That is really welcome but it has also been quite an emotional week for an awful lot of women, and indeed, their partners. Several women as young as 30 have contacted me to talk about early menopause. They do not want to be forgotten in the conversation when we speak about how this is perhaps an issue for older women. Let us, therefore, continue that conversation. I also welcome the comments from the Taoiseach around this issue. There really is an opportunity now to have it placed front and centre when it comes to the women's health task force this year and into the future.
I also thank the GPs who have reached out to tell us what will support them in the services they provide. We also need to talk about employers, however. We need to make sure this is an equal Ireland for every woman so that no matter where they work or who their doctor is, they are getting the exact same information and care.
I agree with Senator McDowell about cybersecurity. I will also point out that as we are moving forward to a greener Ireland, it is not just electricity on which we are relying. Much of what we are doing is also ensuring that people have retrofitting in order that they do not need to use as much electricity, and that we also have other forms of transport. It is a small point but not everything will be going electric.We need to invest in cybersecurity, as the last few days have proven. We are moving to a more digitised society, undoubtedly, and putting in the necessary supports is really important.
I also welcome the amendment to today's Order of Business to include statements on the situation in Palestine. Like Senator McDowell, I want to refer to the weekend's cyberattack which was a very serious development. Systems are under attack all of the time but this was a successful attack, at least in terms of breaking through. It is possibly the most significant cyberattack on the Irish State and prompts questions about the robustness of the State's cybersecurity. This goes right to the heart of data and systems security, not to mention the impact it has had on services.
For years now Sinn Féin has included in its alternative budgets the need to significantly invest in improving and modernising ICT systems within the broader health sector. It is for the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau, GNCCB, to pursue the criminal element but there is a need for this to have minimal impact on health services as we move ahead. Some hospitals had to cancel many services and clinics and there will be significant ongoing disruption, potentially for a number of days or weeks, if not months. Clarity is needed from the HSE on the timing of the reopening of services and the Government must ensure that any additional supports or protections needed are resourced now. We need to know how this happened, the source of the attack, how the systems were impacted and how it can be prevented from happening again. There is a need to focus on ensuring that robust security is in place to fully protect the system and prevent future attacks like this from being successful. There must be a review of the HSE's and the State's cyber defences. It is equally important that services resume as quickly as possible. Healthcare workers are facing a difficult enough situation already with Covid-19 and waiting lists and further disruption will create a very challenging environment.
We need to consider an enhanced role for the Defence Forces in cybersecurity. Earlier this year my party colleagues, Deputies Brady and Clarke, made a comprehensive submission to the Commission on the Defence Forces which included an extensive set of recommendations on the expansion and enhancement of the capacity of the Defence Forces to defend the State against cyberattacks. The events of the last couple of days have illustrated the importance of this beyond any doubt.
There is a definitive need to develop the technology and software systems necessary to reduce our dependency on external systems. Sinn Féin believes that the Government must identify the key strategic, technical and operational procedures required to develop our capacity to act independently of external partners. Adequate training also needs to be introduced in the field of cybersecurity in order to enhance and maintain highly effective, professional staff in the field. The sustainability of any cybersecurity system will depend on adequate investment in this area. The role of a revamped, cutting-edge Defence Forces cyber unit is critical in preventing cyberattacks but this can only happen if the State has the ability to recruit and retain the necessary personnel. This is a cross-cutting issue and we should have statements in this House on it as soon as possible, particularly on the next steps and the longer-term strategic response.
I thank the Leader for revising today's schedule to allow us to debate the situation in Palestine, which means so much to me. I am completely and utterly exhausted from talking about what is going on. It is just soul-destroying and if I am feeling like that, what must it be like for the people of Palestine? The situation is just horrendous.
I raised the issue as a Commencement matter this morning. I ask that the Minister, during the course of this evening's debate, give us an understanding of the legal advice the Government has received from the Attorney General and go into some detail on it, if possible. I would really like to hear about that tonight. We have already heard legal opinion from Senator McDowell, Professor Takis Tridimas and Professor James Crawford so if it is possible, I would like to hear the opinion of the Attorney General this evening.
In the time remaining, I would like to read a poem about what life is like for the people of Gaza. This poem was first published in 2017 but reflects what is going on at this very moment in Gaza. I want the Government parties to hear what it is like.We all have our busy lives but we must bring down to brass tacks what is going on. I ask the Cathaoirleach to allow me to read a poem into the record. It is "Running Orders" by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha.
They call us now.
Before they drop the bombs.
The phone rings
and someone who knows my first name
calls and says in perfect Arabic
“This is David.”
And in my stupor of sonic booms and glass shattering symphonies
still smashing around in my head
I think “Do I know any Davids in Gaza?”
They call us now to say
You have 58 seconds from the end of this message.
Your house is next.
They think of it as some kind of
war time courtesy.
It doesn’t matter that
there is nowhere to run to.
It means nothing that the borders are closed
and your papers are worthless
and mark you only for a life sentence
in this prison by the sea
and the alleyways are narrow
and there are more human lives
packed one against the other
more than any other place on earth
We aren’t trying to kill you.
It doesn’t matter that
you can’t call us back to tell us
the people we claim to want aren’t in your house
that there’s no one here
except you and your children
who were cheering for Argentina
sharing the last loaf of bread for this week
counting candles left in case the power goes out.
It doesn’t matter that you have children.
You live in the wrong place
and now is your chance to run
It doesn’t matter
that 58 seconds isn’t long enough
to find your wedding album
or your son’s favorite blanket
or your daughter’s almost completed college application
or your shoes
or to gather everyone in the house.
It doesn’t matter what you had planned.
It doesn’t matter who you are
Prove you’re human.
Prove you stand on two legs.
I think that says it all. It is absolutely devastating. Enough is enough. Condemnation is not enough anymore. We must do something. We have a Bill now. I really want to hear what the Attorney General's advice is, and why he says it is illegal, when we know this can go to the European courts. We can let it go to the EU courts and let it be argued there. I ask Ireland to lead on this and I ask the Government parties here today to please, please do something that is positive. We did it for apartheid South Africa and we can do it now today.
I ask the Leader to organise a debate at the earliest opportunity on the forestry sector. With the passage of the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 in October last year, we had all hoped it would address the inertia in the issuance of licences, especially for the felling of timber. Unfortunately, that has not happened. With the construction sector pretty much back in full swing, there is a shortage of timber. Licences are not being issued, timber is not being processed and, unfortunately, when there is a hold-up in supply, there is considerable demand and the price goes up. I am being told that since earlier this year the price of timber has gone up by 35%. This is a commodity and the price would normally fluctuate 5% either way, but when we take this into account on top of a housing crisis, and when nearly 35% of our house construction is now timber frame, it is a real crisis. I do not know what is required but we need an urgent debate in the House and we need to thrash out with the appropriate Minister some pathway to ensure that the felling of timber gets under way. There are issues with licencing for roadways, thinnings and plantations, but we are also way under the number of trees that need to be planted. We had a target last year of 8,000 ha to be planted but we planted some 2,500 ha. This is an ongoing issue but it is currently at a crisis point, with no sign of a resolution until such a time as we can get the licences issued, get the timber cut and into the mills to be processed. I am talking with sawmill managers and their agents daily. They tell me that they must dot across the country to try to get scraps of timber just to feed their mills. This is not good enough. It is an important indigenous sector.We need to treat it as such and ensure that the laws and rules allow the industry to operate efficiently, although that is not in any way to take away from the climate change perspective, which recognises that we need to plant many more trees to sequester carbon.
I join Senators Chambers and Black in raising the situation in Palestine and look forward to hearing the comments of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, this evening. I have always believed that as long as there are five permanent members of the UN Security Council, issues such as this can never be truly resolved.
I ask the Leader to accommodate a debate on the issue of rural transport. As we know, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 is currently before the Dáil and will soon come before this House for an important debate on its passage. Its commitments include a target of net zero emissions by 2050 and a 51% reduction in emissions by the end of this decade. Actions for each sector will be detailed in the climate action plan, which will be updated annually.
Transport will be a key area, among others. Many urban dwellers have different options for getting from A to B. People in Dublin have the DART, the Luas and more comprehensive bus and cycle lanes, while there are plans in Galway for BusConnects and it also has greenways, some of which can be used by commuters. Options in rural Ireland, however, are limited and, where present, expensive. If we are serious about reducing car use and thereby emissions, rural transport will have to be examined to improve the public transport spines and to interconnect the local public transport systems that are in play. I ask that we have a debate on the issue of public transport. It will be key in respect of emissions reduction and have a practical benefit for all rural residents.
I thank the Leader for setting out the Order of Business and concur with other Senators on the revision to the schedule that has been made. The replacement of the debate on defence issues is important.
I look forward to the debate on Fine Gael's Private Members' motion on young people. It is a thought-provoking issue. All is not well in that area and I look forward to setting out a number of issues and sharing some information in respect of the Ombudsman for Children. I also welcome the debate on the Affordable Housing Bill 2021, which will be critical.
I call for a debate on dying, death and bereavement. Senators might recall that the final event in this House of the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was to launch an amazing body of work, Finite Lives, by the former Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell. It was the biggest event I have experienced in my five years in the House. It was packed and there was much anticipation, about both Mr. Kenny's future and, more important, the issue at hand. The then Taoiseach told me he had chosen to make it his final official launch in the Houses of the Oireachtas. The report is a substantial body of work that raises many issues. We have all been touched by loved ones who have passed away. The report received a very significant endorsement from the Irish Hospice Foundation. Let us not reinvent the wheel but rather dust down this substantial work. It makes 16 substantial recommendations. I ask that at some point in the schedule, we make time for a debate on the content and recommendations of the report.
I join other Senators in welcoming the revision of the schedule to discuss issues in Palestine and thank Senator Black for sharing such a poignant poem. We have a seat on the UN Security Council and it has been recognised that we are doing good work on promoting de-escalation. As we know, however, words are not as strong as actions and much more needs to be done by the United Nations. I wish to express my disappointment at the discussion and handling of the use of antigen testing in this country. We have been fighting a war against Covid for more than a year. This enemy operates by stealth. It entered our communities unnoticed and has wreaked havoc. Many have lost their lives and people continue to make enormous sacrifices. We will be living with Covid for many years and the scars will be enormous. Many have lost loved ones and we have missed out on things like going to funerals and visiting elderly residents so I commend everyone on pushing back this enemy. Over the past few weeks, I have been really disappointed by the approach we have taken to antigen testing and the diminishing of its role. I would go so far as to say that this approach is tone deaf. We were told that antigen testing was snake oil. Now we are being told that it has limited benefits in certain circumstances. To be clear, I am not saying that antigen testing is a silver bullet. I strongly endorse the advice we have been given, which is to follow clear guidelines on social distancing, handwashing, sneezing and cough etiquette, etc., but I also believe that antigen testing should be rolled out to every business and organisation that is willing to use it to encourage people to go about their business. Of course, people need to be educated on how to use antigen tests correctly but I do not see any downside. I do not see how offering this to people going to the hairdressers has a downside. We have all cherished the opportunity to go to the hairdressers and we know how busy they are. I am asking for antigen testing to be rolled out to all industries, institutions and colleges. Denmark accepts antigen testing for entry into the country yet here we are told that it has very little value. Think about it. The authorities in Denmark uses antigen testing to allow people to enter the country but we are not encouraged to use it. Countries like the Czech Republic use it for dental and hair appointments. Antigen testing should be rolled out and used here by anyone who wants to use it to fight Covid. I hope that when our response to this pandemic is examined, our unenthusiastic approach to antigen testing will not be identified as a missed opportunity. I call on the Minister for Health to make the tests available at no cost to any business or organisation that wishes to use them and to launch an education campaign in respect of antigen testing.
I am sure Members will agree with me when I express my solidarity with our healthcare professionals, who dealt with Covid-19 for the past 14 to 15 months and the stresses, strains, difficulties and challenges associated with that and who then faced the most unprecedented cyberattack in the history of the State, affecting 85,000 computers. I commend our healthcare professionals and their supervisors and managers on their unstinting commitment to ensuring that the impact on patients will be kept to a minimum. It is impossible to eliminate any and all effects on patients and appointments but they have done a stellar job in terms of ensuring that testing, tracing and testing and the vaccine roll-out have not been affected by this scurrilous and terrible attack on our State and the most vulnerable people in it.
I again wish to refer to aviation, a matter about which the Leader has spoken extensively in the past. Aviation is critical for our country, not just in terms of the number of people it employs but also in the context of the critical role it will play in kick-starting our economy. Ours is an island nation. That is the reality. Connectivity is critical for our country and is in large part achieved by means of aviation. I understand that a memorandum will be brought to Cabinet tomorrow in respect of reducing the impact of mandatory hotel quarantine and to remove it for a number of, if not all, European states. However, I am still waiting for meaningful short-, medium- and long-term plans regarding how we are going to assist our aviation industry in getting out of the situation in which it currently finds itself. This morning, Ryanair announced a loss of €850 million for last year.Ryanair revolutionised air travel in this country and made it affordable for and accessible to people. That is just an example of the enormous uphill challenge facing our aviation industry. We need to keep our finger on the pulse and force the Government into action.
I remind Senators the allotted time is two minutes apiece. Everybody is taking a bit of injury time and extra time, which is elongating the Order of Business and delaying the Leader's time to respond. We have a long day ahead in terms of our business. I call Senator Moynihan.
I wish to raise the issue of people's outrage at investment funds buying up whole housing estates and that of investor-led housing, which I have raised previously, and investor-led planning. I am concerned, as I hear this issue being discussed, that no consideration is being given to city and apartment living and the right of people to be able to buy or live in affordable rental apartments. I will give two examples in my area of the impact that has had. A few years ago NAMA had within its grasp the Player Wills building and surrounding site in Dublin 8. It could have been used to provide affordable and cost rental homes but it was allowed to go to the developer, Hines. There was a height strategy for that site negotiated and agreed with the local community. The agreed heights went from six to eight to ten storeys. Hines came in and the two applications submitted were for 16 stories and 19 storeys. It was clearly stated at community consultations that was what it needed to do to be able to satisfy its investors and while it was looking at it from a planning perspective, it needed to be able to satisfy its investors. Of the up to 400 units that will be built on that site, including some co-living units, not one will be available for people in the local area to buy. The estimated rent for a studio there will be €1,350 per month. According to the definition of an affordable rent, one would need to earn €4,050 net per month to be able to afford to live in a studio in Dublin 8. Furthermore, one would need to earn €8,400 a month to able to afford a rent of above €2,000 per month for a three-bedroom unit in Dublin 8. We need to put an end to the investor-led planning approach but we also need to be cognisant of our cities, climate change and the need to create sustainable, affordable apartments for people to live in the city centre.
I am glad Senator McDowell and others called for a debate on technology and cybersecurity. This is an issue I have raised a number of times in the House. Until we start to treat data like gold, we will not realise the scale of how important this is. Some 30% of the European Union’s data is stored in Ireland. That is how serious an issue this is. We must begin to take this issue more seriously.
The issue I wish to raise is that of the revelations concerning the charity Bóthar and, in particular, that those at the top of the organisation siphoned off €1.1 million, including in suitcases of cash, over a long period. I was one of those who donated to Bóthar down the years. The Leader will appreciate that those in rural communities in particular have a strong affinity for what Bóthar was trying to achieve. Children in schools organised fundraisers to help out this very innovative charity.
I am being careful. The issue is in the public domain. I am talking about it on the basis of an affidavit. The reason I am asking what is happening in the context of Bóthar is that this is not the first time individuals at the top of siphoned off money from a charity for which they were responsible. This type of thing breaks the heart of those who go out and raise money for charity. It also makes people who donate question the motives of such charities and raises questions about others. Bóthar was a wonderful concept. Ours is an extraordinarily generous country. People will lose their trust in some of these charities if these instances continue to happen. This is happening again and again and although it involves a minority of cases it is damaging all the other charities. It is making people angry. I ask that we examine the role of the charity regulator but, equally, that we ensure those at the top are held to account for actions of this nature.
I, too, want to address the cyberattack and the consequences of it. We need a debate on the security of our State. It is devastating for those who are left wondering when their appointments will be held over the coming weeks. At the same time, I commend the work done in the past few days. Our data was clearly kept in silos. Our data is allegedly kept in silos in Clonshaugh and, as a result, the Department of Health was protected from the detonation of a further attack. It has yet to be revealed what else has been prevented.
This morning's reports that there people's details and personal data may be published on the dark web must be worrying. I see this as a particular concern. Obligations arise out of that. In the first instance, the State needs to publish those categories of data and start putting in place the mitigating actions people need to take. On a daily basis, particularly in my area in which there are many elderly individuals, people receive phone calls requesting their PPS numbers and other information. These are scam phone calls and the Attorney General's office and the Department of Social Protection have issued warnings about them. If data is now out there, however, people will be worried when it comes to deciphering what is real and what is not.
We need to talk about the breaches, what is likely to happen and the consequences of that and explain the position. Small businesses that have moved to paperless transactions on foot of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, and that have been protective of people's privacy as a result now also have to worry about their security. I am calling for the State to announce a set of guidelines on how people can know when they have sufficient security in place. We need an education campaign and a debate on this matter.
I welcome the change to the Order of Business that will allow us to discuss the urgent issue of Palestine later this evening. That is welcome.
There were two extraordinary articles yesterday on what is happening to our property and housing markets. The Business Post revelations that more than €225 million of taxpayers' money has gone into supporting vulture funds buying up houses and apartments before they go on the open market is quite extraordinary. It puts the lie to the suggestion, which came from some Government circles, that what happened with the estate in Maynooth was a once-off. It clearly was not. There are three estates and €225 million of Government funding involved. Not only is Government tax and planning policy denying people affordable homes, it is using taxpayers' money to fund developments which will not be sold on the open market. This is extraordinary and outrageous and clearly has been Government policy for some time. The Government was warned in 2019 that cuckoo funds were not likely to develop additional supply in the marketplace. Two years after that, we see what is still going on. It is outrageous.
The second article is even more concerning, particularly from a Limerick perspective. A British property company, chaired by a sitting Deputy, which opposed council plans for social housing on the outskirts of Limerick City in 2018, is a venture partner and building 37 houses nearby - just across the road. That is extraordinary, is it not? The Formation Group seems to have extraordinary success in terms of building homes and winning contracts. I will not get an opportunity to speak on the housing issue, unfortunately, because I have to do work for the Council of Europe. It is crucial this Affordable Housing Bill addresses the outrageous gearing of the marketplace against ordinary people and in favour of major investors. This is a scandal which has gone on for far too long. We need urgent action in respect of this matter.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the independence of our media. I am talking about all media across the whole island of Ireland, not just in the Republic. The lack of reporting with regard to what is happening in Derry is extraordinary. I refer to the situation whereby politicians are being stood down by a political party.The legacy of former deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness, has been torn apart. What is the problem with the media in this country that they are afraid to report these things? There are all kinds of rumours in Derry of community moneys not being properly spent. There are also rumours of drugs being involved. It is in everybody's interests that the media report these things. It is extraordinary that, for the last six weeks, the media in this country would not touch the matter. What is wrong with our media? Have they been infiltrated? Are they afraid? Why will they not investigate these things?
Gerry Adams's brother was placed in a Donegal house for three years and had charges of paedophilia made against him. No media would ever touch that story. Everyone knew about it in Donegal but nobody would touch it. In addition, Sinn Féin is spending tens of thousands of euro week in, week out on newspapers, media and independent journalists across the country and they can attack anybody on social media with the drop of an email. Our democracy is under attack at the moment. We are talking about cyberattacks. This attack needs to be investigated and it is much wider than just the Abú website. Our democracy is under attack. It is time our media spoke up and woke up and we got independence for all parties in this State.
I welcome the decision to hold a debate on Palestine this evening.
I concur with the remarks made by Senator Malcolm Byrne about charities. When we debate this matter in the Seanad, maybe we should also consider the multilayered strands of charities operating in the same general area where resources overlap. There are so many good charities in the area of cancer and mental wellness. It is a shame there is such an incredibly large number of them. Is there a need for so many individual charities? Could they not come together and amalgamate for the sake of fundraising? That is something we should consider.
Since the Seanad last sat, a new leader of political unionism has been elected. I wish Edwin Poots well, though personally, looking at his track record I am not convinced. I do not really have massive hope but he deserves space and a fresh start and I wish him the very best. I am not a fan of his social or environmental agenda but hopefully the responsibility of leadership will weigh heavily on his shoulders and he will rise to the challenge. I was not a particular fan of Ian Paisley Snr. so Edwin Poots is not a lost cause. He is a fellow Irishman and I wish him well. I will judge him by his actions, not his words, but his words have been very uninspiring to date.
In respect of the cyberattack, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, has a natural love of this area and expertise in it. He will be a positive for the Government. These people are the new mafiosa - make no mistake about it. They should be treated the same as people who kill on the way to rob banks and art galleries, or drug cartels. Their actions risk people losing their lives around the world. We should throw everything at this and the Defence Forces should have an increased budget as this is happening throughout the EU. It is the new scourge and we must rise to this challenge or it could debilitate our country.
I join in the calls for a debate on cybersecurity. I ask specifically that whichever Minister or Minister of State comes in is able to speak about the single customer view data set, to which we have started to add biometric data in the last few years. It includes the data of over 3 million of our citizens and photographs are now being added to it. This is very concerning and is something I have highlighted previously.I understand the Data Protection Commissioner is due to publish a report on biometric data. The State has still not addressed the concerns the commissioner has raised about the customer view data set. That is a mistake and I ask that it be addressed when we have that debate.
The House will get to debate housing. We might join the dots on the fact that hundreds of millions of euro have been given to investors to purchase at a time when local authorities have been forbidden from purchasing. Instead, local authorities are being told they must lease and are sometimes leasing at the same cost because of the fiscal rules. Those rules have been suspended for a year by Europe and will be suspended for another two years, so this is the moment. To join a third dot, Ireland apparently has capital earmarked for expenditure which it cannot spend this year. Let that capital go to local authorities to purchase and own public housing stock.
I join Senators in thanking the Leader for arranging a debate on Palestine. It will be very important. Let us not simply talk about the human tragedy, as others have. I saw the little girl saying she would do anything she could but what can she do as she is only ten years old. We must remember we are a country that is powerful and has an impact, and that there are things we can do. Everything we can do should be done. The ten-year-old spoke of wanting to be a doctor. Last night, Dr. Ayman Abu Al-Ouf, the head of internal medicine and coronavirus response at the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, was killed. That is somebody who was dedicated to their work.
Let us have the Minister in but we must hear the detail, specifically the Attorney General's advice. The Government does not have to publish it but it should be explained. Does the advice include, for example, the European Court of Justice ruling on Rosneft from last year, which said sanctions could be imposed on Russia for reasons of public policy? Does that decision form part of the advice? Is there a danger that Ireland is itself committing violations - as some legal experts would argue - by giving aid to settlement areas through the purchase of goods? That is a legal opinion I would like to have.
We should also bear in mind that Attorneys General are sometimes wrong. In 2017, in the debate on the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016, Senator Ruane and I were told by the then Attorney General that our proposals were illegal. Those proposals are in the new Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2021. Let the Government be ready to argue the case and show Ireland can give leadership on this issue.
I support the call made by Senator McDowell and others for a debate on cybersecurity and energy security. The security breaches of the last few days are not the first such breaches. A number of local authorities have been hacked in the past year and a half. I fully support the call for a debate.
The Passport Office provides a great service. Its online service is very efficient and has helped so many people. There have been problems with the Passport Office over the last week. There is a major build-up of passport applications. Children's passport applications continue to be more complicated as consent forms and first-time adult witness forms are not accepted by the system. This is causing a huge backlog. The system is not accepting submissions for photographs, which will further add to the backlog. I had an email from a worried person this morning who has made a passport application. While he does not have to travel at the moment, he may be required to travel at any time and needs a passport. When he tries to upload his photographs to the website, an error message appears on the system. That feature is obviously not working.
As of 11 a.m. today, the web chat and telephone lines are unavailable. There are, therefore, some issues with the Passport Office which will feed in to the serious backlogs. While staff in the office are doing a magnificent job, the Minister needs to take action. As Senators have pointed out previously, we have a big backlog and the summer is coming, so something will need to be done.
I am sure the Leader will join me in wishing our retailers, shopkeepers and small businesses well on their reopening after a long close-down. My family were in the business of the provision and retail of menswear for 150 years and I know exactly how big a day this is for small shopkeepers. It is a time when we must give them support. The Government, in fairness, gave those businesses and their staff very good supports during the lockdowns. However, they are going to be on their own from now on. I would appeal to the general public to support their local shops. Shops on high streets all over the world are up against the massive multinationals and megastores. The local shop is the heart of local towns and when the day comes that the shop closes down, small, lonesome and empty streets of the kind we have been looking at for the past six months will be left. I am sure the Leader will encourage people to shop local.
My Fianna Fáil colleagues, Senators Blaney and McGreehan, brought an important Private Members' motion about the Taoiseach's shared island initiative to the House last week. The motion received the unanimous support of the House, which is to be welcomed. Only today, the shared island unit, in conjunction with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, has published its first papers, examining economic and social opportunities from increased co-operation on this island. The four papers cover areas of mutual concern, such as cross-Border trade, primary care, education and training systems, and foreign direct investment. This is another step in working towards a shared island and a good relationship between North and South. I urge all Members to study the papers and bring them back to their constituencies.
The shared island movement has been given a fair welcome by our unionist neighbours because they do not see it as a threat. The Taoiseach has made clear that the enterprise is predicated on maintaining peace and shared living as priorities. Unionists are no fools and they are not nearly as sanguine about a number of other organisations and groups, self-appointed and answerable to nobody, that are engaging furiously in dialogue about constitutional change and agitating for a border poll. Some of those groups present themselves as disinterested and neutral voices that are anxious merely to facilitate the discussion that we all support. What they are really doing is building up momentum for a border poll which they think should take place when, and only when, they think they will get the answer they want.An Irish Independent-Kantar opinion poll showed quite clearly that a majority in the North are in favour of retaining the union with Great Britain. There is a nuanced range of opinions in the South on the issue of unity. It is emphatic that more than 70% of the Irish population see this type of agitation and constitutional movement as representing a real danger to peace on this island.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Some of these people are well meaning. Some of them are academics, others are journalists and politicians. They may very well want to be helpful. However, former EU ambassador to the United States, Mr. David O'Sullivan, recently addressed the Pat & John Hume Foundation and stated that heightening tensions in regard to a border poll is the most unhelpful thing that could be done to the body politic in Ireland. He said it could, in fact, prove disastrous.
I ask the people who are agitating for a border poll to think about what they are doing and its consequences. Do they want a return to what we had to endure at the hands of the IRA and Provisional IRA paramilitary murder gangs, the loyalist murder gangs and, indeed, the British army?
Just before the Leader replies, I want to inform Members who put in questions this morning to be dealt with at the Commencement of the sitting that I am unable to facilitate matters relating to the Department of Health at this time due to the issues around the cyberattack that are in the public arena.
I thank my colleagues for the variety of topics that have been raised today. The only thing I can say in response to Senator Ned O'Sullivan's passionate monologue is that he is a wise man and it would be wise for all of us to heed his words and advice.Several Senators have asked for a debate on cybersecurity. I will ask for one as soon as I can. If I am to be honest, I am not even sure who is the Minister in charge of cybersecurity. I will have to go and find out. Senator Malcolm Byrne is right when he said data is king. Senator McDowell is accurate that it is the new space, if not the sole one, next to the drugs world on which those with criminal intent will be focusing their minds for the next number of years. It is so difficult, yet so easy at the same time, to access states' and individuals' information and to exploit it. I heard a gentleman say on the news yesterday that there were 2,500 attempts to attack the HSE last year. Obviously, last week's attack was successful and we are not even sure how successful. I will try to arrange that debate as quickly as I can. It is an issue on which we will be talking about for many moons to come.
I welcome everybody's acceptance of the Order of Business and the change to tonight's debate. The debate on defence is important and we will try to arrange that as soon as we can. However, I really feel that not only does the world need to hear the outpouring of grief about what is being done to both the Palestinian people and to the innocent Israeli people who are not reflective of what their Government is doing on their behalf, but the world must also stand up and act in solidarity. There is a need for a human response to people who have absolutely no choice as to what is being done to them or on their behalf. I thank Members for their co-operation today.
A housing debate was requested by Senator Alice Mary Higgins. She will get an opportunity to make her interventions on that issue tonight.
Senator Vincent P. Martin talked about the multiple charities which pop up across the country. To be fair, they are a direct response to people's experiences and suffering. The charities regulator needs to be given more teeth. There certainly should be a more serious level of governance with regard to all of our charitable organisations.
Senator Blaney spoke about the independence of Irish media. A lot of the time, many of us are left scratching our heads wondering why mainstream media, as we call it, does not reflect on some of the topics raging on social media. Any journalists or editors one speaks to will say the root of the difficulties lies in our defamation laws. Maybe we should be having a debate on the defamation laws as opposed to maybe questioning why some of our Irish media do not do what we would so wish them to do.
Senator Gavan raised some questions about a particular Limerick organisation for which I do not have responses. I will make some inquiries today and come back to him.
Senator Mary Seery Kearney also spoke about cybersecurity, as did Senator Malcolm Byrne.
Senator Moynihan raised the case of the Player Wills site in her area, something which is going to be topical for the next number of weeks, if not months, until people start to see a resolution to the concerns they have been raising for many years. That debate will start here in the Chamber this evening.
Senator Conway brought up the aviation industry. We have been waiting for a long time for Ryanair's results to come out as they did this morning. An €850 million loss in Ireland alone is absolutely staggering. When we add that to the €550 million losses of Aer Lingus and the €220 million losses for our airport authorities, it is no wonder the 150,000 families whose livelihoods depend on the industry are at their wits' end with regard to the Government's response. I hope we can give them a positive response soon.
To that end, Senator Ardagh raised antigen testing and the clamouring on behalf of what I would think are reasonable people looking for it to form part of our national public health response. I have to be honest - it would be remiss of me not to say it - that the patriarchal medical narrative that we witnessed in the past number of weeks by some of our professionals harks back to an era when Irish people, and indeed women, were afraid to challenge the medics. That is not the Ireland we live in today. Anybody who thinks medics should not be challenged should not be in a position of authority to give advice. We should be using antigen testing as part of our public health response. Irish people are not stupid. They absolutely know a negative result does not mean they are negative. What they do know, however, is that if people get a positive antigen test, they should make their way to their doctor, get a PCR test and act appropriately. That is the part that antigen testing should play in our public health response. Less of the condescension would also be very welcome.
Senator Boyhan talked about the Finite Lives report. I would welcome a debate on that matter and I will try to organise it in the next couple of weeks.I will try to organise it in the next couple of weeks. The body of work done by our colleague, Marie-Louise O'Donnell, is superb, as is the work of the Irish Hospice Foundation and all of the people who care for others during their end-of-life and who also support the bereaved when they have lost a family member. I will try to organise that debate.
Senator Dooley spoke about the forestry sector. I will seek a debate as quickly as I can because this issue has major ramifications for the housing debate that is currently going on. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine recently released a report on forestry. It needs to feed into the wider debate that we are having, and I very much welcome it.
Senator Black read out the most powerful poem I have heard in a long time. Poetry usually lifts us, but I regret to say that the poem she read this morning lifted us to the horrors that women, children and families are experiencing on a daily basis. I thank the Senator for sharing the poem and I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing the poem, in full, to be read into the record.
Senators Pauline O'Reilly and Chambers raised an issue they have been raising every time they stand to their feet. I heard this morning that 14 of our 19 maternity hospitals are now in compliance with the public health guidelines. It is amiss as to why not all 19 hospitals are in compliance but, as stated by Senator Chambers, not all of the 14 are in full compliance. I will contact Paul Reid of the HSE today, who, to be fair to him, along with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, have said that the responses of the hospitals as to the reasons they cannot adhere do not stand up to scrutiny. I will make contact with him again today. I thank the Senators for raising the issue again today.
Senator Hoey spoke about eating disorders and the 66% increase in referrals. I will try to arrange a debate around the medical profession and women's health in the next few weeks.
On menopause, Joe Duffy is in danger of becoming my generation's Gay Byrne. I listened to "Liveline" on Friday. Many of us do not have an opportunity to listen to the radio at lunchtime every day, and if we do, we are listening to the news. The experiences being shared by the women brought tears to my eyes. They were very powerful. It is even more powerful that that debate was ongoing for about eight days. The sharing of the experiences, and the solidarity of women, was powerful. I would like to see a lot more of that in this country. The next space for that debate has to be in the Seanad and the next response has to be in the women's health task force on behalf of the Minister for Health. I will try to arrange that debate as quickly as I can.