Tuesday, 19 October 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Since we were here last there have been a number of tragedies and sad passings. Máire Mhac an tSaoi and my fellow Kerryman, Brendan Kennelly, are a great loss to the nation and to their families. Our condolences to all the bereaved.
Last Friday, we saw the killing of Sir David Amess. I know I speak on behalf of all members of Seanad Éireann when I express our heartfelt sympathies to his family on their unimaginable loss. I also extend our sympathies to his parliamentary colleagues in Westminster who have felt his loss keenly on a personal level. They rightly see this, as we do, as an attack on democracy itself. All of us in Seanad Éireann are all too well aware of the degrading language and intemperate attitudes often used in political discourse in this day and age. While we all recognise that vigorous debate is part of our democracy, those who refuse to recognise and respect the right of people to hold different views and opinions need to reflect upon the kind of intolerance that sometimes leads to events such as the killing of Sir David. Sir David was a man of great dignity and principle. He was a decent man. He was a good friend of Ireland and he was an associate member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Association. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
I join the Cathaoirleach in his comments on Sir David Amess. His death has sent shock waves through politics here and in the UK. Most worrying was the commentary to the effect that somehow it was justified because of the job he was doing or the party he was a member of. This is a cause for concern for all of us. It is something to be vigilant about. We send our thoughts, prayers and sympathies to his family, friends and colleagues and to the community he served with distinction for so many years.
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on Sláintecare, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude at 6.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to opening remarks by the Minister not to exceed ten minutes and the time allocated to all Senators not to exceed five minutes, with the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 84.4, Private Members' business, motion regarding flooding, to be taken at 6.45 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
On behalf of the Fianna Fáil party, I join the Cathaoirleach in sending sympathies to the family and, indeed, to the Westminster family of Sir David Amess. He was a very fine and distinguished parliamentarian.
I also send condolences to the families of Máire Mhac An tSaoi and Brendan Kennelly, At a time when coarse language is something that is used all too often, we had two wonderful poets who espoused the positive use of language.We are the poorer for their loss but the richer for their having lived.
I will support the proposed Order of Business. There are a number of issues I wish to raise. The first relates to an article I read yesterday that shocked me. It concerned a man who tried to choke his ex-partner and was jailed for just three months. His defence maintained that the fact he was "off his face" on cocaine was almost an explanation for the brutal attack he committed. It is shocking. His three small children, who were witnesses to the attack, tried to protect their mother and stop the attack using Power Rangers swords. It was such a vicious attack, in which the mum was left badly bruised and with broken fingers. That the sentence was only three months long is completely wrong. We talk about Supporting a Victim's Journey, which is the name of a new plan under the Department of Justice, but this sentence does not send a clear message to perpetrators or would-be perpetrators.
I remind Senators that in respect of court judgments, sentencing can always be appealed. We must be mindful when we raise issues relating to courts in the context of the separation of powers between Seanad Éireann and the Courts Service.
I accept that but sentencing should reflect the crime. We have to take into account the impact on children.
I raise also the issue of derelict sites. I have become aware of a number of derelict sites within my town of Newbridge and around south County Kildare that are owned by investment funds. They are a blight on the estates on which they are situated. Dumping is going on and young people are hanging around, yet it is difficult for Kildare County Council, in this instance, to secure the property because of the legal issues. There needs to be a streamlined system whereby properties can be secured if, after a period, the owners cannot be contacted in order that the sites can be taken by the local authority and turned into accommodation. We all recognise and acknowledge the need for more houses but something needs to be done in respect of derelict sites.
I thank the Deputy Leader for outlining the proposed Order of Business. On behalf of the Fine Gael group in this House, I join the Cathaoirleach in extending our sympathies to the family of Sir David Amess. As a new member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, of which Sir David was also a member, it is a sad day for me. Many of our colleagues in this House met him and worked with him on British-Irish relations over the years. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
I join also in the tributes to Brendan Kennelly and Máire Mhac an tSaoi. Brendan Kennelly was a feature of the streets of Dublin city for decades and always gave up his time freely to young people who were interested in literature. This country has benefited greatly from the wisdom of both Brendan Kennelly and Máire Mhac an tSaoi.
It is good news that society is reopening, as will happen on Friday. That must be welcomed but caution has to be exercised. The issue of personal responsibility is now coming to the fore. I have no doubt that when the people are asked to show personal responsibility, to be careful, cautious and considerate and to step back when necessary, that will happen. I wish the businesses that will reopen on Friday, after 19 long months, the very best. I hope it will go smoothly, carefully and safely.
On health issues, the hospitals in Galway and Limerick are very overcrowded.We also know the flu vaccination season had begun. While I welcome the Government's announcement that it will extend the remit of those who can receive free flu vaccines, we need to go further. We have seen the success of the Covid-19 vaccine in this country and we need to see the uptake of the flu vaccine at 90% plus. I call on the Government to make the flu vaccine free to everybody - it will be a small cost - and to encourage take-up. At present, it is a case of us being penny wise pound foolish. If we can get 90% of the population to take the flu vaccine injection, we would reap the rewards with fewer presentations at accident and emergency units throughout the country, and it would be a small cost to bear. I call on the Leader to contact the Minister to articulate that view and, if necessary, to allow a debate in this House on the flu injection and its free provision.
There was an incident in my constituency whereby an ambulance had to travel from Galway to Kilkee to attend a road traffic accident. That is totally unacceptable. We need a debate in this House on the National Ambulance Service. There are great women and men, paramedics and drivers, working in the National Ambulance Service but there seems to be a problem with response times and the methods used to co-ordinate it at national level. We need a debate on the National Ambulance Service in recognition of the great work our paramedics do and to ensure the service is quick and responsive and available when people need it.
I thank the Senator for raising the issue of the paramedics. I know the case of a family in distress who were told that no ambulance would attend them. While the ambulance had to travel from Galway to Kilkee in the Senator's example, there was no ambulance available to help this family.
I concur with the sympathies expressed by the Cathaoirleach to the family of Sir David Amess.
On Thursday evening, I called to my grandchildren - I know the Leader has young children - and the excitement in my six-year-old granddaughter’s eyes when she sat me down to tell me she was going to read me a story and, as she read me the story, the excitement in the four-year-old sat beside her, watching as her sister read, was something to behold. I missed a lot of that with my own kids, but it was really something else in this case.
Why I am bringing this up today? On 19 August, at the United Nations Security Council, Ireland and Mexico urged the Security Council to place the utmost priority on protecting and vindicating the rights of Afghan women and girls in all decisions and actions on Afghanistan’s future. They jointly outlined the actions that the council must take. They stated:
1. The Security Council must unite and express clearly its rejection of these assaults on the rights of women and girls.
2. The Council must as a matter of urgency call on all parties to respect and facilitate the emergency evacuation and safe and timely departure of Afghans, including human rights defenders, women leaders and those involved in public life, women’s rights activists, peacebuilders and journalists, who wish to leave the country.
3. The Council must continue to demand full, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access: this must include access for women humanitarians and frontline workers throughout the country to carry out their lifesaving work.
4. The Security Council must insist with all Afghan parties that the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in any new government is a non-negotiable condition of international engagement.
What does all this mean? They are all fine words, but no real impact has been made on the care for women and girls as a result of this statement. Ireland spent millions to win the seat in this talking shop, known as the United Nations Security Council, but the permanent members can literally veto anything they wish to defend their national interests, to uphold something in their foreign policy, or because of some issue of particular importance to their state. The use of the veto by Russia and China has risen considerably since 2012, with the conflict in Syria accounting for the bulk of these. Since 2011, Russia has cast 19 vetoes, 14 of which have been on Syria, two on the conflict in Ukraine, and one on Yemen. Eight of the nine vetoes taken by China during the period have been about Syria and one has been about Venezuela. The United States has cast three vetoes since 2011, all of them to do with Israel-Palestine issues.Perhaps someone might tell me what is the purpose of having a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Why even bother with this bloody talking shop? I have pages upon pages of vetoes since 1946. In all, there were 220 vetoes between 1946 and 2004. From 2004 on they have stepped up the number of vetoes. Why are we participating in this talking shop? How has this talking shop helped the women of Afghanistan today who are prevented from what my granddaughter takes for granted? How do we get women participating in education? Can you even begin to imagine what it is like for a young girl who had three or four years' schooling not to have it now, or for a young woman who had been in university and maybe had one or two years' university education and suddenly it is gone? Talk is cheap and at the end of the day I see no practical steps being proposed by Ireland in any way. Our presidency of the United Nations Security Council is meaningless when you can have anything we say vetoed. I would love a debate on this in the near future.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that is, that No. 19 be taken before No. 1. I wish to introduce the Safe Access to Termination of Pregnancy Services Bill 2021. While Sinn Féin is proud to be supporting this Bill, all credit for this Bill belongs to Together for Safety, a national campaign group for safe access zones that I have had the privilege to work with for the past number of years. This is very much a cross-party initiative. I acknowledge the strong support of the Labour Party, which will be seconding this proposal this morning, and the Civil Engagement Group, which has been consistently to the fore in engaging this issue. I also acknowledge the support of Senator O'Reilly from the Green Party, Senator McGreehan from Fianna Fáil and the father of the House, Senator David Norris, all of whom have co-signed this Bill. I also want to acknowledge the contribution of Senators O'Loughlin and Fitzpatrick who joined us behind the Together for Safety banner at lunchtime today.
Every week, there are gatherings of anti-choice protestors outside maternity hospitals. The previous Government promised safe access zone legislation to ensure these protests would not take place outside these hospitals. There are people monitoring, marching, praying and watching women and pregnant people going in and out of maternity hospitals. Every day there are protestors outside the maternity hospital in my home city of Limerick. I hope the Leader will agree with me that people have fundamental rights to privacy and dignity, especially so when they are visiting a hospital. I ask Members to think about the impact of these protestors on people as they access healthcare throughout the State. I ask them to listen to just two quotes from people who have encountered these protestors. I am grateful to my colleagues in Together for Safety for supplying these quotes. The first quote reads:
She asked me if I had an appointment across the road. I presumed she was making small talk as she also had one so I said yes I did. She told me she and her friends were praying that no babies were murdered in the hospital that day.
The second quote reads:
They were sprinkling holy water and saying prayers outside our hospital setting while there is women having miscarriages, or having stillbirths each week or carrying their babies out in white coffins.
These protests, which are happening outside many hospitals throughout the State, are attempting to intimidate and cause upset. They are invading the privacy and bodily autonomy of women and pregnant people at a profoundly vulnerable and sensitive time. People should not have to access healthcare like this. We have been promised legislation for more than three years. It was supposed to be passed in 2019 by then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. It was not. What was particularly worrying was a reply I received from Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to the effect that there was no need for such legislation. I received that reply in May, and a similar reply was given to the Irish Examiner in August. Thanks to Together for Safety, we have a Bill in the Seanad. I appeal to Members from all parties to get behind this Bill and ensure a swift passage through this Chamber. Women and pregnant people have been left waiting for far too long. My party colleague, Senator Ó Donnghaile, along with the leaders of the Labour Party and the Civil Engagement Group in this House will be writing to the Leader asking for an early cross-party slot for Private Members' time so that we can progress this Bill which is in line with a commitment given in the programme for Government. I ask all Members on a cross-party basis to support this legislation and get this done. Women should not have to continue to access healthcare in this fashion.
I want to be associated with the vote of sympathy at the start of business today on behalf of the Labour Party.
I want to raise two issues today. The first is to seek a further debate on housing. My colleague, Senator Moynihan, has continued to raise the housing crisis on an almost daily basis. In asking for a debate I want to reference an interview I heard this morning on my local radio station, KFM, on my way to the House. Professor Rory Hearne of Maynooth University was interviewed about an article he had written about NAMA the previous day in the Irish Examiner. He called for an urgent review from a social and economic perspective of what NAMA does and how it contributes to the State from that point of view. I join him in that call. Some headlines from what he said refer to the fact that NAMA has €1.2 billion in funding reserves and 577 ha of residential development land. NAMA is currently selling 400 homes across the country. Professor Hearne stated NAMA could be directed to provide 4,000 cost rental and 4,000 affordable homes a year. Given the crisis, I totally agree with him. We cannot ignore what NAMA is doing and could do. Too many families in the State are continuing to cry out for housing and are in need of help.
The second item I want to raise today is rubbish and the continuing problem of illegal dumping in this country. In March this year, with the support of the House, we passed Second Stage of the Local Government (Use of CCTV in the Prosecution of Offences) Bill. In his reply to the debate, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, welcomed the Bill and stated that the Government was working on Ireland's waste action plan for the circular economy, originally published in September 2020, which commits the Government to implementing a range of measures including tackling the problem of illegal dumping. On the specific advice received from the Data Protection Commissioner regarding the Bill, which I hope the Bill will address, the Minister of State said that was currently under consideration by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. He also stated that, for its part, the Government was in contact with the County and City Management Association, CCMA, on practical issues raised by the Data Protection Commissioner and those which our Bill also raised.
Unfortunately, as I am sure many Members of the House are aware, illegal dumping is as bad as ever. My local authority, Kildare County Council, recently ran a one-day amnesty on mattresses and couches. In one day alone, it collected 75 tonnes of couches and mattresses at an estimated cost of €50,000. I continue to receive calls on a weekly - sometimes daily - basis about this issue. There is no doubt that we need solutions and the use of CCTV will help. We estimated at the time of the debate on the Bill that €90 million is being spent nationally on the clean-up of illegal dumping. As I said before, we can imagine the number of community projects we could complete with this money. I want to thank once again all of the Tidy Towns and community groups that do so much to combat this problem. They are to be congratulated. I would appreciate if the Leader could organise a debate on the circular economy Bill with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications so that we can discuss, and finally come up with some solutions to, this massive problem for our State.
Anyone who has ever had a problem with his or her sight or has had an injury to his or her eyes knows how frightening it can be when one's vision is compromised. Unfortunately, recent figures from the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, make for depressing reading. As of August 2021, 41,200 people were waiting for an outpatient eye care clinic appointment, with approximately 7,800 people waiting on an inpatient eye procedure. Waiting lists, as we know, were high before Covid. Unfortunately, Covid, to put it mildly, has not helped matters. The Association of Optometrists Ireland says it can provide a solution to this problem. There are 300 optometrists and 700 practitioners located across the country in state-of-the-art premises providing great care on a private basis to many of our citizens. They are highly trained and have the necessary equipment to be able to address the problem that we currently have. However, unfortunately in this country we do not seem to engage with such professionals to the same extent as many colleagues across other European countries do, and I believe this is a major mistake on the part of the HSE. I recently mentioned the Sligo cataract scheme, which was a joint operation between the HSE and optometrists in the area who tackled the long waiting lists for cataracts.It was a success. I believe what is being proposed would reduce waiting times and would be a cost-effective service. It would be very accessible and a better use of equipment and personnel than is currently the case. Surely it is time we opened our eyes to the benefits of such a scheme. I ask that the Minister be invited to the House so we can debate the merits of developing such a relationship.
I wish to express my grave reservations over our media and their coverage of the current state of Covid-19 in this country. Ever since the beginning of our vaccination programme, I have been constant in warning against the dangers of dividing society along the lines of vaccination status and opposed any legislation that encouraged it. Imagine my disappointment then when I tuned into "The Pat Kenny Show" to hear the host demonising 17-year-old children for going to the cinema and referring to them as "vaccinatable", as if a person's worth is based on whether we can jab them and include them as a figure on the vaccine uptake tally.
Only a few weeks ago, we were all smugly patting ourselves on the back as articles about our great vaccine uptake flooded in. The unspoken message was that we were great, selfless and educated, unlike other countries, whose people were acting like savages. A fat lot of good that has done us as the Taoiseach has confirmed that our restrictions will once again live on past their supposed expiry date, while other countries with much lower vaccination uptakes are now more successful at suppressing the virus.
It is clear then that the current tone reflecting the position that the only reason we are having a problem with the virus is due to the individuals choosing not to get vaccinated is not only deeply insulting, discriminatory and harmful, it is also incorrect. This hunting around for some cohort of ordinary people to blame must stop and the responsibility for that lies with our media figures and outlets.
It was not even two weeks ago when we stood in this Chamber and were told that the continuation of Covid certificates past 22 October was unlikely. At this stage, I cannot even muster any surprise that while the rest of Europe is up and running, the Government maintains its policy of fear and stifling caution, and rushes to move the goalposts once again. The message after today's announcement is very clear. People who are not vaccinated can and will be treated like second-class citizens. They will be dehumanised, labelled and cancelled unless they do what they are told. "Follow the science" means, "Shut up and do as we say."
I will make one response to Senator Keogan. Large sections of Europe have opened up but anyone who travels anywhere in Europe is required to show a vaccination certificate on entry to bars, restaurants and venues. I know that from experience. The Government is, therefore, in line with the rest of Europe in requiring the Covid certificate to be shown and that is the correct approach.
I wish to raise two linked events that have happened in recent days. The first was the rather amusing takedown of Nigel Farage by RTÉ's Claire Byrne, exposing his lack of knowledge of Irish history. The fewer platforms that are given to his anti-immigrant, anti-European, populist nonsense, the better. The second event happened last Friday when, in a much more serious vein, film director David Puttnam, speaking at a lecture in honour of the late Shirley Williams, spoke of the pig ignorance of some British politicians regarding Ireland, and in particular his fear of the way in which Rupert Murdoch has helped to remake Britain in his own malevolent image. We should have concerns about both of those events. There is an issue around the level of awareness of Irish history and politics among some in British society. That sometimes stems from ignorance and is often because education of that history does not exist in Britain. It is important for us, in our efforts in foreign affairs, to communicate effectively our history and politics.
We should not rest on our laurels and simply assume that we do not have populists here. Unfortunately, we have seen a deterioration in standards among some involved in journalism to the level of the red-top standards we see in the UK. There is a real responsibility on those of us in politics and journalism to ensure that commentary is informed and, in particular, constructive.
I want to raise an important matter, namely, the employment wage subsidy and the Rebuilding Ireland home loan. Last week, in budget 2022, the Government extended the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, until 30 April 2022. This is an extraordinary measure for extraordinary times. It is further evidence of the Government's support for businesses to help them to get back on their feet as the pandemic recedes. However, I am facing increasing unwillingness on the part of councils, the Department and the Housing Finance Agency to approve Rebuilding Ireland home loans for applicants in the EWSS. One such case, with which I am dealing, concerns a hospitality worker who is now working more hours than he ever did. He has received a promotion and a corresponding increase in wages but is unable to get approval for a Rebuilding Ireland home loan because his company is availing of the EWSS. Another case of mine involves a childcare worker who is in very similar circumstances. While I understand that the EWSS is to support businesses, its extension until April 2022 brings more uncertainty for those very people whom we are trying to support as a State, and whom we are trying to support in becoming the owner of their first home. Therefore, I would appreciate it if the Deputy Leader could arrange a debate on this matter and if we, as a House, wrote to the Department asking it to address this issue as a matter of urgency.
Even though I do not always agree with Senator Keogan, and did not agree with some of her comments today, I am glad she has recovered and is back in the Chamber. It is good to see her back in full health again. I join other Members in extending our sympathies to the family of the Conservative MP Sir David Amess and also to the families of Brendan Kennelly and Máire Mhac an tSaoi.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that is, that No. 20 be taken before No. 1. During my term in Dáil Éireann, I produced a Bill on flooding along the River Shannon. I am reintroducing it as the Electricity (Supply) (Amendment) Bill 2021. The scourge of flooding over many years, particularly along the basin of the River Shannon, has not been properly addressed by politicians in this country. We all attend the meetings, listen to the complaints, put on the wellies and walk the land that has been destroyed but, in reality, the time has come to truly deal with this issue. It can be dealt with in an environmentally friendly way, and this could take away a lot of the misery felt by people along the river. Everybody knows the pattern of rainfall has changed dramatically in recent years. The amount of rain that fell over two days years ago can now fall in two or three hours. This, in itself, has brought new and untold problems to many families. Businesses have been wiped out and farms have been destroyed. People's mental health has suffered drastically over flooding along the River Shannon. I hope that when the Bill is introduced, we will have a good debate on it and it will be supported. It is time that we got the necessary legislation through and dealt with what has been a terrible scourge, affecting mainly people in rural areas. I acknowledge, however, that flooding can hit many communities in Ireland nowadays.
Today I would like to talk about the further digitisation of Irish society. Particularly in the past year and half, owing to Covid, society has become more cashless than ever before. For example, I do not even carry a wallet anymore. I have my ATM on my card.I rarely carry cash any more and it is the same for many people across the board.
When I talk about the digitisation of Irish society it is about how we make it more efficient. I have not come up with exactly who we have to ask yet and will definitely take advice on that, but there are two ways in which we can make it more efficient. First of all, when people have ATM cards on their mobile phones they should be able to withdraw money if they need it from an ATM cashpoint using their phones. They are not able to do that unless they have a hard copy card. This is something that would aid the digitisation of Irish society more. The second point relates to IDs and we see it with Covid certificates. In order to enter any place, whether it is a pub or restaurant, one needs to have a Covid certificate accompanied by ID to prove who one is. Again, since so few people are carrying wallets any more, very few people keep physical ID on them, unless it is a driver's licence in their car and so on.
The point is we should also look at introducing variable IDs on people's mobile phones so they can rock along and will be able to show straight up drivers' licence or passport in a digitised version that is accepted across the board. To be fair, I would not expect to go somewhere and be allowed to show a photo of my passport or my ID. We accept IDs in hard copies. We should now be able to accept them in soft copies. The Government should be able to introduce something that it has labelled and agreed and can be used right across the mark. The same thing should be done with ATM cards where physical money can be withdrawn from an ATM bank machine with a mobile phone.
I have not got anything prepared. I compliment Senator Gavan on his work with Together for Safety in Limerick in bringing in safe access zones legislation. I will make the point that the women who are being intimidated as they go through maternity services include women who are coming out of the hospital having received terrible news or are going in to access abortion services. Protests outside hospitals and GP surgeries also create a chill effect on GPs being able to operate their services. Just 10% of GPs and just over half of maternity units in this country are operating abortion services.
We still have a very long way to go in offering safe, legal and local access for women to services. That is why it is so important this legislation is passed. There are women now who are, let us say, living in a county like Sligo who have to undertake a 100-mile round trip to access a GP in another county and return after three days. The repeal review is coming up. We know that women still have to travel to the UK because their timelines are very short and because there are many grounds that are not covered under the legislation. I ask and urge Members of the Government side of the House in particular, to advocate within the Government to try to fast track the safe access zone legislation.
I saw in last week's budget something about which Senator Chambers has been very passionate and has spoken about a number of times in the House, that is, the funding for free contraception that came out of the committee work on the eighth amendment. It is very important this legislation is passed because the chill effect on GPs and maternity services means women are not able to access the local services they need.
I second Senator Murphy's proposed amendment to the Order of Business. In doing so, I compliment him on the great work he has put into that issue. He has come up with a very common-sense approach to what is an ongoing issue.
I will raise an issue that both the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Cathaoirleach will possibly tell me before I am finished is more appropriate to a Commencement matter, but I received a message regarding it last night, we are in recess next week and it is important it is brought to the House. My lobbying will be strengthened by something from the House. A member of the Irish diaspora in Canada turned up at the airport to come home, unfortunately, for his father's funeral. He was fully vaccinated and had his certificate stating same, but he was told Ireland did not recognise mixed vaccinations and he was sent away to get a test. He had to go home and come back the next day. He just made the funeral by a matter of hours but could equally have missed it.
This is a vitally important issue. I will make personal representations to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Health, or whoever is responsible for areas outside the EU where its digital Covid-19 certificate does not apply, particularly for people of Irish origin and Irish citizens.Some of those people got mixed vaccinations, but it is important that we recognise that they are vaccinated. They have the certification that states they are vaccinated. The fact that it may have involved the use of two different vaccines may be a bonus, as many people would tell us. Apparently, however, the man to whom I refer was told that the authorities in Ireland are not recognising mixed vaccinations. He was sent home to get a test and then barely made it back to his father’s funeral by the skin of his teeth.
It may well have been more appropriate for me to address the Minister directly about this issue. As we are in recess next week, I would appreciate if the Leader and the House would strengthen my case with the Minister in this regard by adding their voices in support of the necessity of recognising the vaccination status of Irish and non-Irish residents abroad. If these people are vaccinated, they are vaccinated, and this issue must be addressed.
I also extend my condolences to the family of David Amess. I felt emotional reading all the comments on Twitter. Even after this man's death, there continued to be negative comments. It is shocking to see that someone has no peace even in death. I do not want to turn this into being about us as politicians, but Senator Moynihan spoke about a chill effect in her contribution and this event is having a chilling effect on politics. One does feel a little exposed standing up to speak about something or, indeed, putting oneself forward to participate in politics. I hope people feel that there is a sense of solidarity across the Chamber and across the two islands.
I commend Senator Gavan for the proposed Bill on safe access zones and Senator Moynihan as well. Those on the Government side of the House support the Bill as well and it is good to see that we have that cross-party support for an issue of this importance. Safe access zones should have been a part of the original legislation in 2018, but we are where we are. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has acted on this issue. He told me that I could raise the issue and that Government legislation is being drafted. This is positive news from both sides of the House and I look forward to further debate on the issue. This year's budget contains much feminist healthcare and that is remarkable compared with previous budgets. I refer to the provision of free contraception and menopause centres being established across the country. All I can say is "let us have more of that". I am delighted that we can progress some of these issues, but safe access zones must now be a priority.
Everybody from my generation will be familiar with this beautiful poem written by Máire Mhac an tSaoi, who sadly passed away at the weekend:
Le coinnle na n-aingeal tá an spéir amuigh breactha,
Tá fiacail an tseaca sa ghaoith on gcnoc,
Adaigh an tine is téir chun an leapan,
Luífidh Mac Dé ins an tigh seo anocht.
She was one of the outstanding poets writing in Irish and she left a fantastic legacy. Máire Mhac an tSaoi was an extraordinary woman. The daughter of Seán MacEntee, she was educated in the Sorbonne and then became a diplomat. Máire Mhac an tSaoi was the wife of Conor Cruise O'Brien, and what a contrast there must have been there and what great debates they must have had.
It is extraordinary that on the same day she died we lost our great Kerry poet and the most beautiful voice of Brendan Kennelly. I did not know Máire Mhac an tSaoi personally, but I am privileged to say that Brendan Kennelly was a great friend of mine. I knew him from home. One of the great advantages of becoming a Senator was that I was able to meet him fairly regularly here in my early years in town. We generally met on Duke Street for a chat. In later years that was over coffee, where we would be pretending that it was much better for us than whiskey. He still retained a wonderful charm and facility for the English language. He was a poet of the people. He and John B. Keane, my other neighbour, had great roguery in them.
I will finish with a story. I do not know which one of them it is about, but the two of them met one time and they were discussing their literary legacies. One asked the other what he would like to be remembered as. By the way, they were also nice footballers in their day.The other said he would like to be remembered as the man who scored the winning point in the final of the north Kerry championship. That simplicity and that genius were in both of them. We have lost two wonderful voices. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh anam Brendan Kennelly, and thank you, Senator O'Sullivan, for sharing that story. Being from Kerry, I know the importance of scoring the winning point in the north Kerry championship. In north Kerry, it is more important than scoring the winning point in an all-Ireland final for Kerry.
I thank Senator O'Sullivan. That is a hard one to follow.
I wish to raise Circular 0050/2021 on teacher substitution. We need to take the word of principals on this issue. There has been a chronic crisis regarding substitute teachers, or a chronic shortage of them, over the past few years, not just as a result of the pandemic. I have spoken to principals about this, and the panel system is a really good initiative but is effective only for well-flagged and planned absences. In Dublin West, the substitutes are booked up until January 2022, I am told, and it is impossible to find a substitute teacher at short notice for a day or two. Most schools I spoke to said their own lists of subs had been exhausted and that the people on them are in longer term contracts with schools to cover absences. The schools are not getting any response from the text-a-sub service or the national sub service. The demand for substitution is not diminishing. To take just one 32-classroom school in my area, last week eight teachers were absent, with no teachers coming from the panel. The school managed to get three subs and the principal lost a weekend trying to find replacements. At another school, there were 17 teacher absences. The school was able to secure two substitutes, neither through the panel. Another school has needed a sub on 19 occasions. Schools are pulling subs from everywhere they possibly can, whether through special education teachers, SNAs, early years educators or the principals themselves. It is not just about the special education teachers; it is about schools just trying to stay open. That is not sustainable and not good for continuous professional development.
I think the teachers are quite upset about this because the Department is aware of the issue and these schools fight for special education day in and day out and for resources for their schools. They would not do anything to compromise special education. They are in this position because they have no choice at the moment. I welcome what has been said about looking at the teacher supply action plan and teacher colleges, but we need a realistic and an empathetic plan.
I support Senator Murphy's comments on the River Shannon, which traverses both our counties.
The Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, was established under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to act as a service to mediate and provide dispute resolution between landlords and tenants. The board offers a free mediation service, not only for landlords and tenants but also to third parties directly affected by an issue - for example, an overhanging tree from a neighbour's property affecting one's own. This could be blocking daylight, shedding leaves, blocking gutters or destroying patios or gardens. The mediation service for third parties is not known by most homeowners and is poorly promoted through the RTB website. Homeowners email and contact their local councillors regularly, some even going as far as court in order to deal with issues, not just overhanging trees but, indeed, more extreme problems such as harassment from neighbours. The latter is something my wife and I suffered. We had to go to court, where we found that the RTB was not dealing with the issue. The RTB essentially has no power or does not use it and is considered not an option by many, whether due to lack of funding or lack of resources. If the RTB were to reform its website to ensure it is clear that these mediation services are being offered, not only to landlords and tenants but also to those who feel their property is being adversely affected by a neighbour, people would have a body they could contact and work with on an issue. Most people living in semi-detached houses have experienced an issue with a neighbour in their life, whether it be overhanging trees or some more sinister problems.There must be an adequate organisation to work with property owners on their behalf to resolve a matter they may have with neighbours. The RTB is established but it must use its power to support property owners and prevent such matters going to court and costing many homeowners, landlords and renters money they may not have. The RTB must ensure that its website and mediation services are clear, accessible and understandable for all people. More funding may be required from the Government to improve these services and act as a support for those homeowners, landlords and renters experiencing issues.
I welcome the announcement by the Taoiseach earlier today on the continued use of digital Covid certificates. It is something I raised in the Chamber last week. I did so because I felt there was an opportunity to protect businesses and people. It is good that the announcement was made today, and it is significant because a number of measures would not have been possible today if we did not continue using digital Covid certificates. Those measures include unlimited numbers of people being allowed to attend weddings and the reopening of nightclubs. There will now be talk about Christmas parties for the first time in two years. That will only be possible because digital Covid certificates will remain in place.
Speaking to those in the industry, I know this reassures people who have been concerned about going into environments like pubs and cafés. They will now feel protected. It is significant that digital Covid certificates have been protected. The arguments used by people for this being the wrong approach were used a number of months ago, when the certificates were introduced, but the sky has not fallen in. In fact, people have found them quite easy to use. I welcome that the process is being continued until the end of the year.
On Friday, 22 October, it will be International Stuttering Awareness Day. In Ireland, we have a stuttering awareness and mental well-being campaign starting today. Three people - Mr. Michael Ryan in Templemore, Mr. Jamie Gogan and Mr. Michael O'Shea - started that campaign. They met the Lord Mayor of Dublin this afternoon and will be in Buswell's Hotel tomorrow for a number of hours. I encourage Senators to meet them. They will be at the hotel from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. They are trying to raise awareness in Ireland about stuttering and stammering. They want to encourage people to be who they want to be. It is an opportunity for us to support them. New US President Joe Biden suffered from a stutter. There is a real encouragement to build awareness of the matter. I ask Members if they are available tomorrow between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. to meet those three guys. They are very impressive people.
Codail, a laoich dar thugas grá,
codail go sámh i m'bhánbhaclainn,
tusa mo rogha fear Fáil,
thatr rí na bhFiann is a chóir fairis -
Codail, codail, a chúl na lúb,
le faobhar na hoíche, codail, a rún.
As Senator Ned O'Sullivan said, Máire Mhac an tSaoi - and Brendan Kennelly - represented the best of our tradition, writing and communicating as they did in our two main spoken languages. The only contact I had with Máire Mhac an tSaoi was when seeking her permission to use the poem that Senator O'Sullivan recited on a Christmas card I sent from this House a number of years ago. They really were two very impressive people. Ar dheis Dé go raibh siad.
There was a much more untimely, tragic and horrifying death in Britain that we have all recalled. Sir David Amess had great concern for the unborn, the elderly, those at risk of fuel poverty and the animal kingdom. He was a model of humanity and consistency in a way that is exemplary for many of his contemporaries. If he knew our circumstances, he would have reflected on how the legislation proposed by Sinn Féin and others here today is not necessary. As the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, has stated, we have the laws we need to deal with any breaches of public order if such events were to take place. We have our constitutional protection of that delicate but important thing that is freedom of expression and the right of people to assemble. We have the reality that we do not have abortion clinics in Ireland and that abortions take place in relative anonymity.Those who meet to give witness to the dignity of all human life and to the possibility of positive alternatives, we are saying to do this in a way that is very respectful. We need to be careful about trying to pretend that there is no counter narrative on abortion. There is and there always will be. It is important that we hear all voices in society and dialogue with each other respectfully. I believe this is what Sir David Amess would have believed in. I know many of his mutual friends, who are understandably heartbroken. They recall a man who was exemplary in his respect for others and in the way he made his point in politics. It is something that we all, myself included, should to try to imitate.
I want to mention the platform, Speak Out, that was launched this week by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. Speak Out is an anonymous online platform that allows students and staff to report incidents of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, bullying, cyberbullying and everything in between. It is to operate across our third level institutions. It must be a welcome thing. It is wonderful that there is an anonymous online platform that makes it as easy as possible for people to report these activities so they can be dealt with at whatever level is appropriate.
I wonder, in the circumstances, if we should be looking at advancing this tool into secondary schools also. It is not as if we do not know that this kind of behaviour is happening also at second level. There is an opportunity for a similar anonymous online platform to be available to secondary school students, teachers in secondary schools, and parents of students in secondary schools. We know this is happening, and we mention these issues a lot in this House. They have come to the fore particularly in recent years and such behaviour causes enormous damage to the victims.
Sometimes, we expect people to come forward and do what we see many brave victims or survivors of this kind of behaviour do, which is to come forth and stand in the media, sometimes in the spotlight of television cameras, and say what happened to them, but not everybody can do that. It is actually an exceedingly difficult thing to do. The idea of an anonymous online platform is welcome because it allows people who perhaps do not have the wherewithal to stand in the glare of a camera, or the media or in the public eye to say these things. It allows them still to report it and to register what has happened to them, and still to put it into the hands of the officials, and hopefully the mechanism to monitor what is happening and take steps to deal with that.
I welcome Speak Out. It is an excellent initiative and I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Harris, for it. I hope we could possibly extend it into other areas of education, particularly into second level education.