Seanad debates

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Address to Seanad Éireann by An Taoiseach

 

10:30 am

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Taoiseach. If only he received applause like that every morning. In the course of his service as a public representative and in public life, he has, by any measure, made major changes in the posts and Ministries he has held. Of course, one of the posts he has not held is that of Senator, so we are delighted to welcome him to the Seanad, even for a few hours. Since he was elected to Cork City in 1985 Council and to Dáil Éireann in 1989, and as the first citizen and Lord Mayor of Cork from 1992 to 1993, his public service has been about change. In his first Cabinet post, as Minister for Education and Science, he championed the cause of special needs assistants. In 2004, as Minister for Health and Children, he gave Ireland the distinction of bringing in the first workplace ban on smoking. He was the first Minister for Foreign Affairs to visit Gaza, in 2010, bringing the eyes of the world on that humanitarian crisis, and he bypassed the blockade on the region. Time does not allow me the opportunity to outline all the changes he has implemented, but I wanted to highlight just a few of them.

I thank the Taoiseach for coming to the House. As we know, he fought for the Seanad, not as it was in the past but for what it could or should be, in that famous referendum. One of the key changes was allowing more people to vote in Seanad elections. To the best of my knowledge, the referendum on the seventh amendment to the Constitution is the only one passed by the people that has not been enacted, by successive Administrations. As we approach our 100th year, it would be timely for the Government to support legislation that would give effect to the amendment, which was passed more than 40 years ago. It would expand the right to vote to our citizens and increase the number of people entitled to vote in reformed Seanad elections from 150,000 to, potentially, millions.

With the support of all the party and group leaders and the Members of this House, we have implemented the relevant recommendations in the Seanad reform reports that were within the power of the House to action. For the first time ever, we are reviewing the recommendations of Oireachtas committee reports. Yesterday, Deputy Lawless, the chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice, appeared before us to talk about the report his committee has put together on the issue of rape and sexual violence. We examine these reports six months after they have been published in order that we can see which of the recommendations have, in fact, been actioned. The debate yesterday outlined the continued action that is required to ensure all the recommendations proposed by the committee will be put in place.

Another of the renewals relating to the increased engagement with the public and nominated bodies, such as charities, trade unions, farmers, business organisations and the cultural and educational sectors, on issues of concern to them in our new Seanad panel forums. The first of these topics related to ending the practice of non-disclosure agreements by universities, which silence victims and protect the guilty, allowing abuse to continue. The Government has now committed to introducing legislation to address this problem.

One of the constant themes relating to Seanad renewal and reform has concerned the scrutiny of European legislation. Parliamentary language is often complex and, in some ways, is used to confuse and to prevent transparency. In legislative phraseology, the European Communities Act is used by Ministers, who have total authority, to transpose EU directives by way of statutory instruments that can be annulled only by resolutions of the Oireachtas. In essence, this means Departments add to EU legislation, which is signed into Irish law by Ministers, without Deputies, Senators or parliamentary committees seeing it, bypassing democratic scrutiny. The worst example of this was the bypassing of Deputies and Senators, and even the Joint Committee on Health, on the first and, to date, the only organ-donor legislation in the history of the State. No Deputy or Senator or even the health committee had sight of that legislation before it was signed into Irish law, and Mark Murphy, the chairperson of the Irish Kidney Association, stated that it was the worst transposition of that EU directive in the European Union. With the Taoiseach's assistance and help, we hope the House will play a role in ensuring that such laws will be scrutinised by the Oireachtas.

Next year is our 100th anniversary. Established in the midst of a bitter, tragic and divisive Civil War in which many families, including my own, lost loved ones, the Seanad played a role in establishing and consolidating the democratic institutions of our State. Between November 1922 and February 1923, 37 Senators had their homes destroyed. They were intimidated and kidnapped, but none resigned. The first Seanad was described as having the most diverse bunch of politicians in our history. It had 36 Catholics, 20 Protestants, three Quakers and one member of the Jewish faith. Its Members included, famously, W. B. Yeats, as well as Michael Duffy, a road worker from County Meath, Eileen Costello, a civil rights campaigner, Bryan Mahon, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in Ireland between 1916 and 1918, Jennie Wyse Power, president of Cumann na mBan and Thomas Henry Grattan Esmonde, the great-grandson of Henry Grattan, of Grattan's Parliament. The creators of the Seanad ensured it was diverse to give a platform for the unionist and minority communities who found themselves in the new Free State. Over time, it evolved to give different minorities and communities a forum to ensure their views, voices and calls for change, change that society was not yet too ready or willing to make, were heard. Those voices included a sole voice. Our colleague, the father of the House and the longest continuously serving Senator in the history of the State, Senator Norris, is the embodiment of the Seanad, as one of the minority voices that has led to major change. We are fortunate that Senator Eileen Flynn was appointed by you to represent the Traveller community in this Seanad. She is using that position to bring change and to have a voice for her community, a community that has suffered on the margins of our society for too long.

Finally, next year, when we mark the Seanad's 100th anniversary, we will be glancing back but also looking forward. We hope, with your and the Government's assistance, we can make the changes we seek for the next 100 years, so the minority communities can continue to make major changes in this House to benefit us all on this shared island. Thank you, Taoiseach, and we look forward to your address.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Ar dtús báire, gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis na Seanadóirí as an gcuireadh labhairt leo tráthnóna inniu. Is mór an t-áthas orm agus an phribhléid dom a bheith sa Seanad chun labhairt leo. Ar ndóigh is ócáid thráthúil í mar go bhfuil muintir na hÉireann faoi láthair ag dul trí ré dhúshlánach chasta nach bhfacamar riamh i saol an lae inniu. Is ar an ábhar sin ba mhaith liom labhairt faoi ghnéithe éagsúla dár bpríomh pholasaíth atá lárnach d’Éirinn anois agus san am atá amach romhainn.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the Seanad for the first time as Taoiseach. The Seanad plays a critical role in our nation’s politics, scrutinising legislation and enhancing debate on the issues we face. I was proud to argue for the retention and reform of this House in 2013, and was very pleased that the Irish people shared our view of the importance of a second Chamber in our democracy. I am, above all else, a passionate believer in parliamentary democracy and the rich heritage we have inherited down through the decades and centuries in terms of the concept of parliamentary democracy. Indeed, as a Minister in previous Governments, I always found the non-adversarial tone and tenor of this House more conducive to the acceptance of amendments and ideas in respect of legislation and often allowed for a better type of debate than is held in the Lower House, which tends to be more partisan in the exchanges, for obvious reasons to some extent. There was a different atmosphere in this House, which facilitated reflection on legislation and the taking on of ideas. That has been my experience and it is one of the reasons I supported the retention of the House.

The other was, as the Cathaoirleach outlined, the rich heritage of this House, in particular as a forum for independent opinion and voices to come to the fore in the national debate. That has been the case since the inception of the House. It is an aspect of the Seanad that we must cultivate and nurture into the future. I do not have too much difficulty these days in the ranks of my party in terms of independent thought and so forth, as it comes forward fairly readily. Then again, I bring it on. It is very important in the context of our national debate to get different perspectives.

The importance of Seanad reform was a key part of the message in that campaign. Senator McDowell, in particular, was a leading advocate for that reforming agenda after the referendum. I know and welcome the detailed work the Seanad has put into an active role in the examination of European legislation. We met this morning. As a country, we are required under the treaties to examine EU legislation and directives. We have received the Seanad's proposals and we have engaged with the Attorney General, the team and with the Department of Foreign Affairs. I will give this my personal oversight, give the proposals serious detailed consideration and refer back to the House with regard to how we can bring forward that idea of scrutiny of EU legislation and do it more effectively. On the seventh amendment of the Constitution and its implementation, I realise that Senator Malcolm Byrne and other Members have brought forward proposals in that regard. Again, I am anxious to work with Senators to see if we can bring that forward because it has been there for a long time without resolution. It is about expanding the electorate and there are many obvious anomalies in that regard.

Today’s exchange is timely, living as we are through an era of unprecedented challenge, complexity and uncertainty. Two years ago, nobody could have foreseen the immense global disruption and huge loss of life caused by the coronavirus. Many difficult decisions have been made over the last 20 months, with unprecedented restrictions introduced to our daily lives and unprecedented financial intervention by the Government in the economy. However, a great national effort and the roll-out of a world leading vaccination programme have brought us to the point where virtually all our society and economy have reopened. Nevertheless, the current incidence rate of Covid-19 in Ireland and across Europe is very high. The Government has moved quickly to try to stabilise the situation, with the requirement to work from home if one is able to, the extension of the Covid passport requirement, a new closing time for the on-licence trade and greater use of antigen testing.

Of course, the vaccination and booster programmes remain at the core of our response to the disease. Building on the success of the national vaccination programme, we are now driving forward our booster programme. Booster shots are currently being administered to those aged over 60 years in the community, residents in long-term care facilities, the immunocompromised and healthcare workers. On the advice of the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, we are now making arrangements for the booster’s roll-out to everyone in the country with an underlying condition and to everyone else over the age of 50 years. However, even as we roll out boosters, it is clear that vaccination alone will not prevent transmission. As Members will have heard me say on Tuesday evening, everyone must get vaccinated. I make that appeal again - everybody should and must get vaccinated, and then take the booster when it is offered. The timely take-up of the booster is very important. It restores immunity and enhances it over and above the first two doses. Everyone who can work from home must do so and we all need to wear our masks, keep our distance and be aware of our environment. If we all contribute to this collective effort, we will keep our society and economy open, we will sustain and maintain our progress and we will keep healthy and safe.

The coming winter is anticipated to be particularly challenging for our emergency departments due to the growing prevalence of Covid and the expected return of flu, respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, and other transmissible diseases which were not an issue last winter. The need for a robust winter plan and action to limit virus spread is clear. Implementation of the winter plan has already commenced and the system is availing of hospital avoidance measures, increased diagnostic capacity and increased use of private hospital beds. We allocated an additional €1.2 billion, including winter funding, to support health services in the acute, community care and primary care sectors in 2021, and this is being maintained in 2022. It is going to be a challenging period, but every resource available is being deployed to meet the challenge.

The economic recovery plan was published in June. Through labour market activation, investment in education and skills and enterprise supports, it is helping to drive a jobs-rich recovery and to support our transition to a decarbonised and digital economy. The overarching strategy is ambitious, but achievable. We aim to have 2.5 million people in work by 2024.Key progress since June includes the publication of the Government’s Pathways to Work, the overall framework for activation and employment support policy; the revised national development plan, a vital enabling mechanism for social and economic progress, and for housing and broader infrastructure ambitions; our Housing for All strategy; and the 2021 climate action plan, with rigorous implementation structures within each one of them. We have published a new well-being framework for Ireland and work is also progressing at pace on a new national strategy for research and innovation and a new national digital strategy.

Passion for education has been a constant throughout my political life. I believe it is the great enabler in life and is unquestionably the foundation stone for all the major progress we have made as a nation. Nothing about our national progress or our continued success was, or is, inevitable. We are the European home of many of the world’s great corporations. Some of the most cutting-edge technological processes and research anywhere is taking place today in our country. We got to this point because we were innovative as a country and because, as a people, we placed a very high premium on the importance of education. The substantial investment that we are making in education, the massive increase in the number of apprenticeship places and the establishment of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, which is a key element of our programme for Government, are all about making sure that this commitment and the primacy of learning continues into the future. It is about making sure that just as we were ready and seized the potential of life sciences, IT and social media, we are ready and have the skills to seize the potential of all the new technological developments that are coming.

Right now, there is no more urgent or higher social priority than the housing crisis. In response to that crisis, we have published and provided huge resources to deliver the Housing for All strategy. It is an ambitious and far-reaching plan, opening up access to affordable, high-standard housing to purchase or rent. The State’s investment represents the largest multi-annual funding programme in the history of Irish housing, with in excess of €20 billion being made available through to 2026. A large-scale approach, bringing many strands of Government together to tackle issues across multiple areas, including homelessness, affordability, rent reform, planning, financing and the legal system is under way. Progress has already been made on a number of actions in the plan, including the progression of necessary legislation and I thank Senators for their role in that progress. In the spirit of what gets measured gets done, a focus on delivery and accountability across Government is stitched into every part of the plan. Increasing overall supply is central to addressing the housing crisis and while the pandemic had an obvious and unavoidable impact on construction over the past year and half, I am very encouraged by recent reports that point to a robust rebound in the volume of housing currently under construction.

Over the past 20 months, the Covid-19 pandemic has confronted the EU’s institutions with a crisis and challenge of immense scale. The EU, however, has played a pivotal role in our collective response to the pandemic, not least in vaccine development and procurement. It is a remarkable achievement that is perhaps too easily overlooked. The historic €2 trillion EU budgetary package agreed by the European Council last July also represents a new and important milestone in EU solidarity. Importantly, the recovery package sent a message that in the most telling of times, even when there are differing views as to the right approach and the best way forward, EU leaders can work together and find a compromise that delivers for our citizens.

As we look ahead, the Conference on the Future of Europe is enabling people from every corner of the Continent to share their ideas on shaping Europe's future. I welcome the conference as a practical way of boosting citizen engagement with the European Union and look forward to continued constructive and considered engagement by the Oireachtas with this important initiative.

In the meantime, since assuming our seat on 1 January, Ireland has also played an active role on the United Nations Security Council. During our presidency of the Security Council, I chaired an open debate on climate and security, calling for the effects of climate change to be taken into account in the Security Council’s analysis and response to situations of conflict and peace building. In September, I delivered Ireland’s national statement to the General Assembly urging it to heed the alarms sounding for conflict, Covid and climate. I called for commitments to immediate action and I confirmed Ireland’s contribution to global vaccine sharing. It is my clear conviction that engaging robustly and constructively with international multilateral organisations gives us the best chance to meet the big challenges of this age.

Closer to home, through the shared island initiative, the Government is working for the future of the entire island in a positive, practical and ambitious way, engaging with all communities and traditions. Through the shared island fund, we are bringing fresh impetus to all-island investment projects. With this resourcing, we are now finally moving ahead with the Ulster Canal and Narrow Water bridge projects, with sustainable tourism and active travel benefits for the central and east Border regions. We have commenced a major new North-South research programme, bringing institutions and researchers together across the island to conduct world-leading research. In October, as part of the revised national development plan, the Government committed to extending the shared island fund out to 2030, doubling the resource commitment to at least €1 billion. In total, there is now cross-Border funding for the decade ahead of more than €3.5 billion.

Through the revised national development plan, the Government set out new all-island investment priorities across virtually all sectors. We will work through all-island partnerships to create a more connected, sustainable and prosperous island for all. To support our agenda for deeper co-operation and connection on the island of Ireland, the shared island unit in my Department has commissioned a comprehensive programme of research. The Government has undertaken the shared island dialogue series this year, engaging with more than 1,000 groups and individuals from civil society, across all regions, communities and sectors to hear their views on how we can all do better on working for a shared future on the island. We will continue and develop our approach to all-island civic engagement, as part of the shared island initiative next year. This Government is ambitious, committed and working today with all communities and traditions on the island for a shared, reconciled future for all, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.

We recognise the genuine concerns of some in Northern Ireland on the operation of aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol. Our consistent position has been to get the protocol working as smoothly as possible for people and businesses on the ground in Northern Ireland. It is also important to recognise the significant trade, business and employment opportunities the protocol offers for Northern Ireland, with access to the EU’s Single Market.

The ongoing talks between the EU and UK should be given every chance to succeed. The Commission has engaged deeply with the issues affecting people and businesses in Northern Ireland. The Commission package reflects that engagement and is a serious response to the challenges and concerns that have arisen. Progressing this work in a spirit of partnership and working at EU-UK level for agreed solutions is the optimal way forward. Any potential triggering of Article 16 is a matter of deep concern and the Government has conveyed this clearly to the British Government, given the risks this poses for political stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland.

Climate change is a threat to all of us and our way of life. Having recently attended COP26 in Glasgow, it is clear to me that the need to urgently take action is recognised around the world. Climate change requires a fundamental examination of how we live and work to reverse the environmental damage that has been done, restore biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Climate action is a central tenet of the programme for Government which commits to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by 2030 and our new national climate objective requires the State to pursue and achieve, by no later than the end of 2050, the transition to a climate resilient, biodiversity rich, environmentally sustainable and climate neutral economy.

These commitments have now been enshrined in law by the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021. The Government recently published the new climate action plan 2021, which is the latest in a suite of measures introduced to fundamentally alter Ireland’s approach to climate change. Our new climate legislation, carbon budget and annual climate action plans provide for clear targets, actions and accountability. The plan sets out indicative ranges of emissions reductions for all sectors of the economy by 2030 and the actions needed to deliver on our climate targets. We are determined to deliver the change that is needed and to ensure that we not only produce plans but deliver and implement them.

We have an ambitious and profoundly important programme of work ahead as a country, and the constructive support of this House will be welcome and essential in making the changes that need to be made. Senators have shown that constructive support throughout the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, and I look forward to continuing to work together in that spirit as we get to grips with making our country a safer, healthier, more sustainable home for all our citizens.Senators have shown that constructive support throughout the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, and I look forward to continuing to work together in that spirit as we get to grips with making our country a safer, healthier and more sustainable home for all of our citizens. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir as an deis labhairt libh tráthnóna.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Taoiseach for his address. I ask Senators to bear in mind that the timing is strict enough so that I can give everyone who has indicated that they will be speaking at an opportunity to do so.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Fine Gael)
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I will be fast. The Taoiseach is incredibly welcome to the Seanad. As the Cathaoirleach pointed out, he has held a number of offices in what can only be described as a very long and distinguished public record, starting off in Cork and rising all of the way through the ranks to Taoiseach. I am very pleased that he is my Taoiseach. It is an honour for me to be his representative in this House, and I thank him for giving me that honour.

As the Taoiseach alluded to, politics can be very adversarial, in particular when people are on different sides of the House. We suddenly become friends when we are on the same side of House. I can genuinely say that I have admired the Taoiseach for many years, not least because of his stance on certain issues. For me, the measure of a man or woman is how he or she treats somebody in private. He well knows how much I respect him for the way he treated Máiría Cahill when she was the subject of major trauma and was reliving that trauma because of the actions of other parties. I want to put on the record that I am very grateful for how the Taoiseach treats people in private as well as his public persona, and thank him for that.

I would also like to thank him for the particular attention he pays to men's mental and good health. He is aware from recent statistics of the major problem we have in this country. We have some wonderful organisations in the State which respond to people who are having mental health difficulties or are going through bad periods of their lives. Young men from the ages of 20 to 41 are not in the catchment group that we are helping because they are not coming forward for help. Unfortunately, when we look at the statistics on suicide they are the people who are being successful. Our success should be measured in our direct approach to young men in campaigns and reaching out. I ask the Taoiseach to sincerely engage with the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, who is doing a wonderful job in running specific campaigns for our farming community, men and women who are incarcerated in our prisons around the country and, in particular, young men between the ages of 20 to 40. We need to find ways to reach them in ways that we are not currently doing.

I want to commend the Taoiseach on his shared island approach. I know for how long he has felt that we needed to change our approach to how we interact with our citizens on all parts of this island. It is a welcome and novel approach and the most important thing he has done is to listen. It is sometimes a mistake for politicians to think that we need to be heard, when a lot of the time we have two ears and one mouth and do not use them accordingly. The Taoiseach has shown leadership by listening to and engaging with people in the North of Ireland, and I want to acknowledge and commend him for that.

I want to welcome the fact that, as part of the programme for Government, the Taoiseach has brought forward a Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. Education is the ground-breaking equaliser. That can be said to be true of some the difficulties we have had in Northern Ireland. Having had the privilege of being Minister for Social Protection for a number of years, I know the equaliser that is missing in areas of deprivation is access to opportunities in education. I want to commend the Taoiseach for ensuring that everybody will have equality of opportunity. However, I want to ask him to specifically examine lifelong learning, in particular for women who have left the workforce. We need women to be mothers, parents, rear their children and have special relationships, but when those women want to come back to work and suffer a crisis of confidence we need to be there for them. It is something we started a number of years ago, but because of Covid that has probably been interrupted. We need to consider returnships and confidence rebuilding. A major way to do that for women is through education. I ask the Taoiseach to examine the objectives of the EPSCO Council with regard to lifelong learning and, if he could, to put some money behind that into third level institutions.

I would probably do myself a disservice if I did not talk about antigen testing and Covid today. I am not trying to be disrespectful to anybody and I do not envy the men and women who are making the decisions in our best interests, and have done so for the past 20 months. However, antigen screening has a place in society. The paternalistic language being used by some of our advisers is not going down well. Antigen testing certainly has a place for those who are walking around while asymptomatic. There are six of them for every one Covid positive person who has been caught by our public health response. We need to change our attitude. I ask the Taoiseach to reconsider this and make a political decision to roll out antigen tests so that all asymptomatic people can curb their behaviour when they find they are positive. Right now, with a lack of testing we have asymptomatic people going around the country not knowing that they have Covid.

I ask the Taoiseach to consider medical exemptions for those whom we acknowledge cannot take a vaccine. I have a pal who is 12 years old and has Down's syndrome. He is petrified. His mammy cannot make him take the vaccine, but he is being excluded from activities in school and the Special Olympics, and has now been told that he will be excluded from his Christmas pantomime. It is just not fair. I know we are trying to encourage people who have other fears to take the vaccine. This is a little man, and there are plenty of people with medical exemptions who are owed a service to make sure that they are fully included in society.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I have no doubt that the Taoiseach has been in this Chamber many times as a Minister, but this is the first time he has been here as Taoiseach. We are deeply honoured to have him here and this side of the House is incredibly proud to have him as Taoiseach. Tomorrow is International Men's Day, which I spoke about earlier today on the Order of Business. The theme this year is true equality between men and women. I want to wish the Taoiseach a happy International Men's Day. He is a champion in terms of gender equality and supporting equality and equity between men and women.

There was a very interesting article in The Irish Timeson Saturday about Ireland being involved for the first time in an Ipsos survey. Some 25 countries were surveyed about their sense of values, beliefs and insight in terms of their position in the world. The findings were interesting. It is important to note that Ireland came first out of the 25 countries surveyed in terms of equality and aspiring to everybody having equality. We have become a more open country and are moving away from the prejudice of the past. That is important to note. We are looking to the future.

That brings me onto the next point I want to make, that is, our sense of identity. In the debate about mother and baby homes, I am pleased to see the progression of the legislation, which is at pre-legislative scrutiny stage, regarding adoption, tracing and the right of identity and to knowledge. It is important that is progressed as soon as possible.

The Taoiseach quite rightly referred to housing as our biggest issue. We also need to build sustainable communities. There is a major issue in terms of providing enough schools in areas where a lot of building is happening, something that affects my area.

I am glad to hear the Taoiseach focus on education. Ensuring our young people have the potential to be forward thinking, be critical thinkers and have transferable skills at all stages of their lives is important.

There are many challenges facing us on the island of Ireland, but I have no doubt that the Taoiseach's courage, conviction and commitment will bring us a long way forward. I wish him well.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Taoiseach's commitment to Seanad reform. He has always been a dedicated parliamentarian. I note he mentioned my Bill and the implementation of the seventh amendment. There are broader questions around Seanad reform, but I would like us to finally address this issue during the Taoiseach time in office and enact the Bill.

Coming out of the pandemic, I would like to mention two sectors. The first is the arts and creative sector in Ireland. It is a sector that has helped us through this pandemic, but it is also one of the sectors that has been most badly affected and impacted. The Government has significantly increased funding through the Arts Council. We are introducing a universal basic income pilot scheme for artists next year. We have to ensure that we provide support for the arts, the arts communities and so on, not just because they will be economic drivers in future, but also because of their crucial role in bringing communities together. The other group I wish to mention is young people. They have been affected enormously as a result of the pandemic. They have shown incredible resilience, but certainly in the context of education, mental health and other areas, they have been affected. The Taoiseach is right to argue, as did the Leader, that education provides a great opportunity. We have to ensure that no young person falls between the cracks. We have to make this the best country in the world for a young person to live in, on a sustainable planet and in a Europe that shows solidarity and in which young people are given the opportunity to participate as fully as possible. As we rebuild society, I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that young people are at the heart of that.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I warmly welcome the Taoiseach and thank him for coming to the House. I welcome the remarks he made about Seanad reform, starting with a potential role in the scrutiny of European directives. This morning, we had a very clear indication from a court in Brussels, in the context of the opinion of the judge advocate on the Graham Dwyer case, of the implications European directives can have for Ireland. I would dare to suggest that if that directive had been carefully examined in a House of the Oireachtas, the suggestion that the present form of the directive should prevent Ireland from taking reasonable steps to protect people who have been the victims of crime and to investigate crime would not have been made.

In 2013, there was a referendum on the abolishment of this House. The Taoiseach, for the reasons he mentioned, played a leading role in the fight to prevent that from happening. The late former Senator Feargal Quinn and a small group of others joined him in a coalition to save this House. I wish to make a point that everybody in this House should take on board. If the Taoiseach had not been in a position to state in the course of a debate broadcast by TV3, in which I joined him against Deputies McDonald and Bruton, that he stood for reform of this House, the House would not have survived. The time has come to pay up on that guarantee of reform. I do not wish to be adversarial but when the Taoiseach was leader of the Opposition in 2019, he called on the current Tánaiste to be honest as to whether he really did believe in reform and asked him on the floor of the Dáil whether it was the case that he did not believe in reform at all.

Reform will happen if the Members of Dáil Éireann put their shoulders to the wheel. I do not think it is reasonable to expect people elected to this House under a system that needs reform to be the most advocate or courageous representatives of the reform movement. I know the Bill that is before the House, the Second Reading of which was put back until 31 December of this year, probably enjoys more support in Dáil Éireann than in this House, for obvious reasons. I am a realist. When the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan, came to the House in November 2020, he stated that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, would confer with all the Members of this House and the wider Oireachtas and bring forward proposals for the reform of the Seanad by May 2021. That has not happened yet. He strongly denied that there was any question of kicking the can down the road. On that occasion, I accepted his good faith and I accept that the Department of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is dealing with a crisis in housing, but now is the time to begin to deliver.

As regards the Bill put forward by Senator Byrne, I refer to the decision of the High Court yesterday in the Heneghan case. If Senator Byrne's Bill alone is passed, up to 1.2 million third level graduates of all the various universities and technological universities and perhaps some other institutions would have a say in the election of the Seanad, but 3 million other people would not. A total of 1.2 million people would elect six Senators, while 1,200 people would either appoint or elect 54 Senators. That is not fair. The people of Ireland were promised change and they should get change.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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The Taoiseach is welcome to the Chamber. I have always admired him as a politician, particularly for his courageous stance on bringing in the smoking ban, which involved taking on a powerful lobby group. It was a significant success and has been emulated across Europe.

I acknowledge the difficult decisions the Government continues to face in respect of Covid, particularly coming up to this special time of the year, which is very much celebrated in Ireland with returning loved ones over the Christmas period. Of course, travel is easier this year. We know the impact of the meaningful Christmas last year, albeit with an unvaccinated population, with high numbers of cases and deaths in January and February. The Government has not been found wanting in providing supports to the sectors of society that have needed it in the past 18 months or more. Of course, the success of the vaccination roll-out and the booster programme will continue to provide hope that we can get through this pandemic.

I will be very parochial. As the Taoiseach is aware, the Galway city ring road has been with An Bord Pleanála for some time and a decision is due tomorrow. The decision has been postponed on numerous occasions and it is to be hoped that it will not be postponed again. I often hear it said that Galway has fallen behind places such as Limerick and Cork, with the Jack Lynch tunnel and the new tunnel in Limerick. Galway has not seen a similar level of investment because it has been stymied in planning for decades. I hope the Government will not be found wanting in terms of providing commitment to that very important project. It is supported by the county and city councils in their transport strategies and it is an integral part of transport links identified by the councils to free up space for improved and necessary public transport within the city.

The planning process for all projects is slow and tedious. The right to object or make a submission is an important right, but it seems to me that objecting is now a business, and a lucrative one. The losers are the State and communities. I welcome the decision by the Government to look at the planning process in its totality and to update and streamline it. That is urgent business that needs to be pursued and I welcome the decision of the Government to do so.

In December 2015, the Taoiseach quite rightly asked the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, about the emergency department of Galway University Hospital on a visit. The then Taoiseach responded that the emergency department was not fit for purpose. It was not for purpose then and it still not fit for purpose now. Despite commitments in the national development plan, a planning application has still not been lodged for the emergency department by the Saolta University Health Care Group. The project spec has changed and it now includes maternity and paediatric floors, but the planning application has not been lodged. The hospital group has proceeded with a temporary emergency department and decanting but no application has been lodged despite promising the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, more than three years ago that it would be lodged before Christmas 2018.

The local property tax is a very important source of funding for local authorities. I am sure the Taoiseach has heard from his colleagues, and I wish to put it on the record on behalf of my colleagues in Galway, that Galway County Council is in dire straits at the moment in the context of funding and that there needs to be direct intervention by the Government. I am sure there are other local authorities experiencing funding issues, but it has been acknowledged in respect of Galway, including by officials of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, that the funding model is broken. They cannot explain the funding model because it is so old, but it is evident that there have been decades of underfunding in Galway County Council. I ask for direct intervention to ensure funding is provided. All municipal districts this year have rejected their budgets. Although they do not have a statutory role, that is indicative of the concerns among all councillors in the region.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I am sharing time with Senator Garvey.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I thank the Taoiseach for coming to the Seanad. It continues to be an honour to be in a Government party under his leadership. Coalition governments can be seen to be full of compromise, and they are, but in some ways parties can lift each other up and call on us to raise our ambition as we each bring new ideas and policies. I do not want to glorify what we have achieved together as a three-party Government because it has been set against a backdrop of trauma and tragedy for our people.

Healthcare continues to be an issue of significant concern as the pandemic ousts people from their place on surgery lists.The State of a healthcare system that has been creaking at the seams for decades is exposed now more than ever. Due to overcrowding, maternity settings have been one of the worst hit, with reports of women labouring in cars so they have the support of their partners for as long as possible. I also believe huge strides have been made in this short time. Funding for an additional 24 lactation consultants, specialist menopause clinics, phased free contraception and the drafting of safe access zones legislation are all now happening.

In education, apprenticeships are available through the CAO system for the first time. There has been investment in hundreds of extra teaching and SNA posts. We now also need reform of the leaving certificate.

In housing, cost rental and affordable housing schemes are now mainstream and have been given statutory footing. A housing first policy for homelessness and a caravan loan scheme have been brought into Government policy for the first time. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Under the Taoiseach's watch, the environment has taken centre stage. I am a proud member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action. We have leaped ahead of other countries in producing hugely ambitious plans. All of this is backed by funding. We have record funding for cycling, walking, outdoor public realm spaces, working hubs and the most ambitious rural transport scheme in our history. This is what will really help to connect Ireland and make us healthier and climate resilient. I hope we can continue to make sometimes small and sometimes large leaps as a country. The decisions we make to keep our people healthy, protect nature and house our people are the most challenging and most important.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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Fearaim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach isteach sa Teach. Is onóir mhór dom an deis seo a bheith agam labhairt leis, fiú amháin más dhá nóiméad atá agam chuige sin. Ar an gcéad dul síos, tá dúshlán mór romhainn inniu leis an Covid-19 seo mar ní muidne faoi deara é. Sometimes it seems we are blamed for Covid. None of us invented or created it. From the very get go we have been trying to figure out how the hell we deal with it. What I see is sad. We have a great nation and a great people and throughout the pandemic we have seen how people have rallied together. Perhaps it is thanks to social media, and we can blame other people also, but I also see huge polarisation happening in Irish society. It makes me very sad because we have seen what it has done in the United States and other countries. It does not serve anybody. Perhaps it serves some people with their own agenda but it does not serve the people of this country. We need to pull together as a nation, whether in Opposition parties, the media or social media. We need to cop on and take things seriously.

We have a climate emergency now that we also have to deal with and a biodiversity emergency that is affecting people on a very local level. Huge amounts of land will be lost by farmers because of flooding because we are not dealing with it properly. Engineering solutions are the one fix we have for all. They are part of the solution. They cost an arm and a leg but they are not solving the problems on their own. We have to have catchment-based solutions.

We also have to look at the fact that local authorities are brilliant but have an important part to play. There are inconsistencies in local authorities. There is a great designer in Dún Laoghaire, a good road safety officer in Dublin, a great climate officer in Mayo and a brilliant heritage officer in Clare. We do not have targets for our local authorities. They are at the grassroots of it also. We need to have standards and targets for every local authority. They are the beginning and end of us dealing with everything at the coalface when it comes to Covid and climate. I thank the Taoiseach for listening and I wish him the best of luck. He does not have an easy job. He did not come into office at an easy time agus go n-éirí go geal leis an Taoiseach.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Tá fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. Tá a lán le rá agam agus níl mórán ama agam mar sin beidh mé ag léamh go gasta ach ní léiriú dímheasa é sin; gabh mo leithscéal. Last week, FW de Klerk died. He was the last white President of an apartheid South Africa. His actions helped to end one of the most cruel and obscene regimes in the modern history of the world. His actions in releasing Nelson Mandela from prison and helping to end apartheid liberated the people and were instrumental in helping to build a new South Africa. De Klerk's farewell apology a few days before he died was in keeping with his political conversion that apartheid was immoral, inhuman and indefensible. The former President was a consummate politician who for decades held many posts in the apartheid Government. I imagine he did not join or lead the white-only National Party with a plan to end apartheid. It was his experience mixed with the changing circumstances in South Africa that convinced him it was time to end apartheid and play his part in building a new multiracial nation. The whites wanted the apartheid system to last forever.

Here at home, partition continues to scar Ireland. There are parties in this State and in the North that want partition in some form to last forever also. Just like South Africa, this will not happen. De Klerk found a partner in Nelson Mandela. Our experience here tells us we all have to find and act on our de Klerk moments. This applies to the parties and people in the Chamber. It applies to the Irish Government. It applies to the Taoiseach and to me. We need to ask ourselves in this, the centenary of partition, whether we are doing enough to end its malign influence in the politics and attitude of the State.

Much progress has been made, and peace and the Good Friday Agreement are evidence of this. They are the harbingers of a new Ireland. The agreement did not settle the constitutional question, it asks us the constitutional question. Our experience and the experience in South Africa show that change happens by people seeking it. Our experience also tells us that once change begins it has an inner and unstoppable momentum. This momentum properly managed and directed can help bring about a new just and equal Ireland. The big issues are well known. These are the need for engagement with the broad unionist and Protestant community. There are many in this community keen to play their part in a debate about the country's future. Therefore, it is regrettable, and I know many found it deeply disappointing, that the Taoiseach failed to appoint someone from the unionist committee to the Twenty-sixth Seanad. There is a need for a referendum North and South, the need for a date to be agreed between the Irish and British Governments for a referendum on constitutional change and a need for a national citizens' assembly. We see evidence of this momentum all around us in the constitutional debate under way involving all parties in the Oireachtas and organisations such as Ireland's Future. Thousands of Gaels have written to the Taoiseach supporting the establishment of a citizens' assembly. The Taoiseach might take the opportunity today to respond to them.

There are numerous academic projects looking at the constitutional and economic implications of a united Ireland. The SDLP, who I do not need to tell the Taoiseach is in formal partnership with his party, has set up a new Ireland forum. Sinn Féin is planning to hold a series of people's assemblies throughout the country from the start of the new year. The Irish Government's role in this momentum of change is crucial, especially regarding the setting up of a citizens' assembly. I know there is a view that such an assembly will be a gathering of nationalists only speaking to ourselves but this is a mistaken view. I know from the contact Sinn Féin and others have with unionists and Protestants that many will attend any such assembly. In fact, they want to. A citizens' assembly would provide the opportunity for the Government to present its vision for the nation's future in terms of the unionist and Protestant people, cultural identity and symbols, the governance structures, the Constitution, human rights, the economy, the health and education systems and much more.

A welcome initiative by the Department in setting up the shared island unit, which Sinn Féin supports, demonstrates the Government is fully aware of the need for all-Ireland engagement in many sectors. As the unit's work develops, I ask the Taoiseach to consider a broader, deeper and more meaningful public engagement with all communities North and South. The dialogue and popular engagement under way across the nation about our constitutional future needs a home. It needs a citizens' assembly to give it focus, direction and the energy that is clearly being invested in a planned outcome. Together we can do this. Ní neart go cur le chéile.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. Ar son Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre sa Seanad ba mhaith linn fáilte a chur roimhe inniu. As a proud Cork woman, who has been based in Dublin for 20 years, I have to admit to a certain pride in having a Cork Taoiseach although I should not probably admit to it. I thank the Taoiseach for taking the time to come to the House. We are all extremely conscious of the huge remit and the demands on his time. He occupies a very important place in government. What is critical is that when something is a priority for him it is a priority for the Government. In this context, I want to reflect on his comments and his speech this morning to the Fergus McCabe memorial lecture organised by CityWide. I listened very carefully to the contribution and I very much welcome the Taoiseach's commitment to the health-led approach and his emphasis on, and commitment to, increased supports and the promise of a citizens' assembly on drug use in this country.

I also heard him speak about the importance of community and partnership. It is vital that the Taoiseach understands there is a large difference between repeated references to community being a cornerstone of drugs and alcohol policy in this country contrasted with the reality on the ground that I see in communities in the north inner city, with increased centralisation, control of policy making and decisions, and a marginalisation of dissenting opinion, particularly by some officials in the drugs policy unit in the Department of Health. It gives me no pleasure to say this but it is important to put it on the record. Just this week we had the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy published. As far as I understand it, there was no community consultation involved in the review.

The Government faces a choice to work with communities, people on the ground and those who understand issues or have centralised policy. In this context, I want to raise with the Taoiseach the mission by the Department of Social Protection to tender out local employment services.Of course, changes are needed in some local employment services, but how the Government is pursuing this raises very serious questions about an understanding of how communities work and how local employment services work on the ground.

I will give one example. The Eastside and Docklands Local Employment Service is based in Dublin 1. Some time ago it spotted a significant demand for construction skills and started a construction skills programme. Every week it takes in 20 men, many of whom have never had a job. Some have been in prison and some have addiction issues. They are not vetted. After three weeks of training on a Friday they graduate and by the following Monday morning many of them start on a construction site. Let us think about that. Some of these people have never worked a day in their life and by the following Monday morning they are starting work at somewhere between €14 and €18 an hour with that income increasing as the weeks go on. That is transformative in their lives.

What makes this project work is that it is a not-for-profit, community-based local employment service. Dublin Port has given it a site free of charge to operate its programme. As it is community based, it is able to get funding for a variety of activities. If it were privately run, none of those supports would be in place and we would not have that crucial programme functioning as it is today. We need to look at the damage that will be done by the Department of Social Protection's crusade on dismantling local employment services.

My message today is on the importance of including communities, not only those who may have lost their way in life through addiction, harm or trauma. It is also about ensuring that any child born into disadvantage is given every opportunity to progress and to realise his or her potential. Right now, people running childcare services in Dublin's north inner city and across disadvantaged communities in the country are telling me they will not survive into next year once the Covid supports are taken away. The changes introduced by the national childcare scheme have seen a dramatic drop in financial support. That needs to change if we are to break the cycle of disadvantage in those communities.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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The Taoiseach campaigned, as did I, for the retention of the Seanad. He will remember that the message in that campaign was "Open it; don't close it." While we have had discussion of the 1979 referendum, we have two referendums that need to be vindicated. It is vital that the 1979 referendum on the expansion of the university franchise be implemented. However, it is not acceptable that the 2013 referendum, which was won on a promise of reform, would then go in the queue and wait a further 40 years for those changes to come into place. We need comprehensive Seanad reform, the kind of reform proposed in the legislation developed by all parties in the previous Oireachtas in the Seanad Bill, which will come back into these Houses in January.

It is crucial that we keep in good faith with the public, many of whom do not have a vote in Seanad elections but who voted to retain the Seanad, by ensuring that they get a say in the very important work that we do in the Seanad. Regarding the content of the Seanad work, the proposals for EU scrutiny have merit and that scrutiny needs to be delivered. Any gap in our democracy is a gap in decision-making that best serves the public.

I ask the Taoiseach to deliver Seanad reform, which we know is not complicated. It does not need to go back to the drawing board as it is already on the table with the Seanad Bill. He should also support other aspects of democracy. He should stand against a creeping erosion of the rights of citizens in planning issues because that is part of democracy. He should stand against the erosion of local authority powers and the voice of councils in offering visions and ideas for what should happen in their local areas. This is part of the democracy piece and the electoral commission will be looking at these issues. However, the Taoiseach needs to show the leadership to make this happen.

Regarding the shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach, investment is very positive, but we also need vision. What role does the Taoiseach envisage the unit playing in any future constitutional change, for example? What role can it play in protecting the human rights pillar, which is fundamental to the Good Friday Agreement?

Regarding our shared planet, the Taoiseach should be playing a key role in his Department in stewarding and leading on the sustainable development goals because this is the vision for a collective good - for a society and an environment which take pre-eminence and an economy which serves that, rather than having the economy rule over all, with society and the environment having to fit into that.

We need not just Covid vaccine sharing, but a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, waiver.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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We need real leadership and for Ireland to take a stand. We should be saying not just that we will export vaccines but that we will allow people to manufacture them. This is a human rights test for our time, as indeed are the actions happening on Europe's borders. I ask the Taoiseach to show rights leadership at this time.

Regarding all the vision we might have, I appeal to the Taoiseach. He has an incredibly important role and he has eight more months in it. I know he has the vision and he has had the courage in the past to take brave, radical, transformative decisions for the common good. I urge him to use these eight months in that way to put a stamp for a better future, be it ending direct provision, declaring marine protected areas or providing a maternity hospital or a right to home care and care for personal needs. These are the transformative decisions he can make.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Senator McGreehan.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. There will be no element of surprise; I will be boringly predictable in mentioning agriculture. When I have to condense all that goes therewith into two minutes, I think the buck stops with forestry at the moment. When we talk about climate action and climate change our land mass provides our only way to capture, store and sequester carbon. While there is no silver bullet, the nearest thing we have to a silver bullet is forestry. I do not use this term lightly, but the forestry sector is in crisis.

Yesterday, representatives of Teagasc and the Department appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine. They told us about carbon figures carrying. We are trying to achieve neutrality in our balance sheet. We are supposed to be planting trees for sequestering post 2030, but we are not planting them now. This is the big one. It needs an all-of-government approach if we are to meet our ambitions.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach is welcome to the House. It is an incredible privilege for me to be standing here as his nominee to Seanad Éireann and also as a Fianna Fáil representative. I had a few dreams as a child. One of them was to be a mother and the other one was to be a Member of one of these Houses. I was always in awe of our fellow party member, Constance Markievicz. I thought if she could do it back then, I could surely do it in the future. If a girl from the Cooley Peninsula, from an isolated Border area of County Louth, could walk in as a Member, so could anyone. Today, I want to dream a little bit more.

We are standing here during a period of centenary celebrations, which has often been difficult and very divisive. I challenge the Taoiseach to lead us by using all our pasts to change the future. We need to harvest that passion and pride, and indeed the hurt and pain. They should be used for good. Let us make this new century the first century that this island will be at peace. The Taoiseach has begun this by opening the most historic unit in the history of the State in my opinion, the shared island unit. It is our responsibility to ensure that our children's children live in a country where we have true republican ideals. For me, those ideals come from the Proclamation's promise to guarantee "religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens ... cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences."

We have much work to do. We do this by examining and ripping apart everything we believed to be true, ripping apart all the prejudices and learned behaviour we have had over the past 100 years. We look towards the next 100 years with optimism and true, inclusive republican values. We need to re-examine how this country does its business, from how we treat people with disabilities, women and children to how we react to climate change and work towards a reunited Ireland. Only with a re-examination of how we work on this island will we ever be able to express our true republican identity in an inclusive and fair way. We need to challenge the rigid bureaucracy that we have created in this country. We need to continue to back this country its people - all its people and all its culture. We support the Taoiseach and we are behind him in his goal to finally deliver on the tenets of our Proclamation for this beautiful wee island.

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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The Taoiseach is very welcome. I pay tribute to him and the Government for their handling of a very difficult situation over recent months.It is certainly something that has affected people all over the world.

On the Covid vaccine booster roll-out, I welcome the fact that the over-50s group and the most vulnerable in society will receive their boosters soon. I have been thinking about how if one looks at the same advert or message ten times, eventually, it is as though it is not there. We need to find a different way of encouraging people to get vaccinated. Of the people who are not vaccinated, some of them are not listening to us. We need to find a different way of getting the message across. I wish to compliment the Taoiseach and the Government on the way in which they have handled it so far.

Most Senators would be surprised if I did not take the opportunity to be parochial. I would like to raise a number of issues, the first of which is the delivery of the M20. I spoke to somebody recently who had to go by ambulance from Limerick to Cork, and it was not a very pleasant experience. It is a road the Taoiseach has probably travelled many times. There are many twists and turns on it. The M20 needs to be delivered. It was not clear in the national development plan, with the "N/M20" referred to. Will the Taoiseach make a commitment on this today?

I refer to University Hospital Limerick. Other hospitals have been mentioned, but University Hospital Limerick has had the highest number of people on trolleys this week, which is an issue that has been going on for quite a while. It is not due to a lack of investment because 110 beds have been invested in within the past 12 months. There has been a lot of investment in staff and resources. Yesterday, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation stated that it is seeking an independent review or a different way of approaching it. Will the Taoiseach take what I have said on board and look at this issue? I refer to staff and patient safety. Somebody needs to go into the hospital to look at how to do things differently. It is overwhelmed with numbers and I note that the region has grown as well. It is the main hospital in the region. This is really important. I would appreciate if the Taoiseach will commit to looking at that in a different way.

A new chair of the board of Shannon Airport was appointed recently. Shannon is important for the mid-west region in terms of economic delivery. Many companies that have relocated to the mid-west recently put it down to two things, namely, connectivity and the standard of education. They are two areas to which an ongoing commitment needs to be made.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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It nearly feels like a Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis in here, as I remember from many years ago.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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It is wonderful to have the Taoiseach in the Chamber. We would love to see more of him. He is very welcome here at any time. We would have liked if his appearance before us had occurred during happier times. With the reimposition of restrictions and the prospects of lockdowns not being ruled out in the run-up to Christmas, it certainly feels like Groundhog Day again.

The vaccinations have note been the medical or political panaceas it was hoped they would be. The Cabinet's elementary plan of lockdown and wait for the vaccine is no longer viable. In desperation, we have finally turned to using antigen testing, a useful tool in the anti-Covid kit of every other European country for the past year but which was seen as "snake oil" in Ireland for months as per the judgment of unelected medical advisers. It is too little too late, as the Taoiseach knows, as we languish at the bottom of the EU table for the worst rates of Covid-19 infection. The country still awaits a feasible exit strategy from this pandemic.

The systematic failures at organisational level in our bloated healthcare system - the most expensive out of the EU 15 on the basis of national income - which struggles every winter, have resulted in the inability to handle even the most modest increase in demand for capacity. The ordinary people of Ireland, who have complied to a fault over the past two years, will once again have to alter their ways of life to make up for this failure.

I am sure I am not alone in wishing that less time was spent in the Lower House in politicking against the Opposition, Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin will one day lead this country in government. It is as much the Taoiseach's personal responsibility to prevent that as it is mine. Sinn Féin will do its best biting at the Taoiseach's heels, and it is up to him to do his best in running the country. Rather than settle for refuting his opponents, why does the Taoiseach not show this country what Fianna Fáil can be? What happened to the Soldiers of Destiny? Perhaps some think that a grey, bland, globalist and EU-centric party accurately reflects the America-lite Ireland of today. I for one miss the deep and bold green of Irish republicanism, and there is much in store for a party that can deliver it.

As others have been parochial today, I, too, would like to be parochial. If there is any way the Taoiseach can pull a secondary school out of that bag, as well as the many other things people have asked, I would welcome it.

I wish the Taoiseach all the luck for the remainder of his tenure. I have no doubt he will lead Fianna Fáil into the next general election.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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We might just clarify where the secondary school is, so that the Taoiseach can take notes?

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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In Duleek.

Photo of Niall BlaneyNiall Blaney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Taoiseach. We are very proud to have him here as our Taoiseach. I was equally as proud on the day he asked me to be his spokesperson on Northern Ireland. Considering what he has done and the republican approach he has taken in the context of the shared island unit and what he is trying to do there, he is setting up an approach to deal with issues in this country in an inclusive way, because far too much of what has happened since the advent of the Good Friday Agreement has been along sectarian lines and has caused more division.

As someone who comes from a strong republican background, it would be great to come into the Chamber and beat my chest about a united Ireland - we would all love to have it - but the reality is, and history has shown in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, that an approach of inclusiveness has worked and those foundations are laid and that is where we need to go back to in order to move forward. The Government's shared island unit is very much in that vein. We welcome the opportunity to be involved with the work of the unit and the funding relating to it, because this is as much about people as it is about territory. Through the Good Friday Agreement committee and visits we have made to Belfast and elsewhere, we have realised the real difficulties that lie within the Six Counties and the Border area. Over time, the work the Taoiseach is doing will hopefully bear fruit. I believe, ultimately, it will create trust. We, as politicians and elected representatives, have to do a lot of work on the ground to recreate the trust that existed around the time of the of Good Friday Agreement. We can do that collectively and move to a shared future that is built on respect and trust, and make the economy work throughout all 32 counties for the good of all our people and children and their futures.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Blaney is sharing time with Senator Clifford-Lee.

Photo of Lorraine Clifford-LeeLorraine Clifford-Lee (Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach is very welcome. As a member of the Fianna Fáil Party, I am proud to have him in the Chamber. The fact that he is taking time out of his challenging and busy schedule at this difficult time in our nation's history is much appreciated. It is a mark of the man he is that he would take the time to listen to everybody's views. I thank him for that.

I am particularly proud of the Government and his leadership of the Government, which has prioritised women's healthcare. We have seen revolutionary commitments to a free contraception scheme, menopause clinics, endometriosis clinics, safe access zone legislation and free period products, to name but a few.

Another area I wish to touch on briefly, which I have raised with the Taoiseach previously, as have some of my colleagues, is the lack of women's refuges. We have high levels of domestic violence in this country. The Covid crisis has seen women particularly impacted. Their financial well-being and their safety have been impacted. Too many women have died in their homes at the hands of current or former intimate partners. This is an issue we need to tackle as a society and we need a comprehensive roll-out of refuges. Eight counties have no refuges and the counties that do have refuges, they are completely oversubscribed. I hope the Taoiseach will prioritise that going forward.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach and I welcome the Taoiseach to the House. I welcome his comments on the importance of this House in the scrutiny of legislation and in having independent voices.

Based in the west, we are a region in transition. We are already at a disadvantage in the west of Ireland. We have startling levels of inequality in this country in respect of investment across a number of key areas, namely, health, education, infrastructure and transport. That means we have underinvestment in the west per head of population right now. This was detailed in a report of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly.

I welcomed the Taoiseach to my hometown of Ballinasloe last week and to St. Teresa’s Special School. I also very much welcomed the news of the new building there which will be fantastic for the 30 children and I look forward to that. We are 25 years waiting for a national school in Ballinasloe and this is a process I am working on with the Department of Education.

I would welcome a commitment on the HSE capital plan. I know that is moving forward and that we had a 50-bed unit in that plan for Portiuncula Hospital, with multi-bed wards in that hospital trying to fight infection control, as well as a rehabilitative unit which will be in Roscommon University Hospital.

Galway County Council, as has been mentioned by Senator Kyne, is the second lowest funded council in the country. The report referred to said that we need positive discrimination in the west to balance the levels of investment. How is it fair that any family in the west is somehow living with these levels of disadvantage when compared with any other region in the country? I appeal to the Taoiseach that something has to be done.

As education spokesperson for Fine Gael in the House, I am also passionate about education, with the wealth of talent in our country and our knowledge of arts, literature and poetry, as well as history, to guide us in the future. We have to increase investment in research to be a global innovation leader. We know that the European average is roughly about 2.19% and Ireland lags behind in that regard. That is something that we need to focus on in order to become a global innovation leader and to keep investment in our country.

I welcome all that the Taoiseach has mentioned on the shared island initiative. Everything that has been done on the cross-Border canal and research programmes are very welcome. I also acknowledge the work of my colleague, Senator Currie, in this area and I also acknowledge the recent loss of her father, Austin Currie. Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an Teach.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. I welcome the Taoiseach to the House.

The private rental market is broken. It is dysfunctional and everybody knows it. People are paying sky-high rents and in return they are getting absolutely no protection. Renters have no protection if the home is sold, if the landlord decides to move in, or if a family member of the landlord decides to move in. These cases amounted to 70% of all notices to quit and of evictions. How can the Government claim to be introducing tenancies of indefinite duration when it refuses to protect renters in the overwhelming majority of eviction cases? I put it to the Government and to the Taoiseach that they should stop claiming to be introducing tenancies of indefinite duration until they give renters genuine and real protection.

The Taoiseach will be aware that one of his Ministers of State, Deputy Troy, recently guaranteed confidentiality when he met with Facebook and other tech giants. These discussions included legislation which will come before these Houses. What exactly is being said in these meetings that Facebook and others do not want us to search for under the freedom of information Acts? Time and again, Facebook says one thing in public but quietly lobby against it behind closed doors, spending millions of euro in the EU institutions in doing so.

It is the job of the Irish Government to get tough on social media companies, to hold them to account, to stand up for our protection and safety online and that of our data and privacy, and to stand up for our precious democracy. It is unpalatable that an Irish Government Minister would grant tech giants confidentiality and deny our ability to FOI these meetings. I wonder if the Taoiseach agrees with this.

There have been 13 different reports into Seanad reform. I was a very active member of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group, as was Senator Ó Donnghaile, set up by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, to look at how we implement the report of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group, or the Manning report. The Bill that was produced by that group is on the Order Paper in this House. Will the Taoiseach commit to supporting that legislation which the Government has delayed for 12 months? Let us open up the democracy or the electorate of this House to include Irish citizens in the North-----

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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----- in the South, Irish citizens overseas and to graduates from all third level institutions. Focusing on that reform alone is to shirk our responsibility for radical Seanad reform. It is long overdue that we take action on this reform.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Well said.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I call on the Leader to propose an amendment to the Order of Business to extend the sitting of the House, notwithstanding the Order of Business today?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Fine Gael)
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I propose that we extend the sitting of the House for 20 minutes.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed. Is that acceptable to the Taoiseach as there are a number of Members who still wish to contribute?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That will be fine.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Lock the doors.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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That is agreed. I now call on Senator Cassells.

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with Senator Murphy. Is that acceptable?

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? It is agreed.

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach. The Taoiseach is very welcome to the House here today and was even more welcome to Navan, my own town, on Monday of this week. The duties that he undertook were all reflected in his speech today as to his key priorities. On housing, I was delighted to see him opening the 109-home development in Gort Fionnbarra. This shows that despite Covid-19, large housing schemes by approved housing bodies and county councils are still happening.

On climate change, one of the big areas of investment in the climate plan is the whole area of public transport. The fact that the Taoiseach came to the old railway station in Navan and committed towards seeing the advancement of that planning process, as announced by the National Transport Authority, NTA, last week is going to be of great significance for the people of Navan and Meath. I am delighted that we are committing to that.

On Covid-19, and the regulations that were brought in this week, on Monday, 24 hours before those regulations were announced, the Taoiseach met with a cross-section of business people in Navan who spoke to him directly and told him that they wanted to see whatever needed to take place, to ensure that they could continue to trade safely and were appreciative of the Government supports. Specifically, publicans also told the Taoiseach that they agreed with the 12 p.m. closing time. One could barely understand that from the noise and shouting that comes from some of the representative bodies. One wonders if they listen to their own members who want to see the country kept open, with the regulations in place to allow them to do that.

I am glad that the Taoiseach came and heard those messages directly from the people on the ground and that we will be able to deliver for those constituents of mine that the Taoiseach met. I thank the Taoiseach.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. Fearaim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. Is iontach an rud é go bhfuil sé anseo chun labhairt linn. Is í seo an chéad uair dó a bheith anseo mar Thaoiseach. The Taoiseach is very welcome to the House. This is not an easy time for a leader and this has already been acknowledged and said. I agree with the comments of Senator Paul Daly on forestry and on the accounts given in respect of funding, particularly for Galway County Council. I know that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, is working and engaging on that issue.

Just transition is very important for my part of the country. I appreciate the number of conversations that we have had. Just transition, initially, was for the region of Longford, Offaly, east Galway, Roscommon and parts of Kildare. It must be maintained in that area for now. The delivery is slow. I know that the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, are working to sort this out. It must be remembered that we have been very badly hit economically with the loss of the Bord na Móna and ESB jobs. I appeal to the Taoiseach today to take that on board, take it seriously and to ensure that Bord na Móna and the ESB, in particular, deliver on the financial allocations that they promised to the local communities which is of great importance.

Many live artists in the entertainment sector are going to be in trouble until next spring because of the rising Covid-19 figures. There are cancellations all over the place. I am appealing again to the Taoiseach and to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, to put a package together to ensure that those people do not suffer financial economic hardship over the coming months. Gabhaim buíochas.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas, a Chathaoirligh. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. I am sharing time with Senator Carrigy.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Given my limited speaking time, I wish to address one issue with the Taoiseach which is the issue of local government and the importance of giving powers back to councillors. We have had a situation over successive Governments, not this one or the one before that, where powers have been progressively stripped away from councillors over the past 20 years. We have disregarded the constitutional status of local government and have taken our trust out of it and put it into central government. The powers now vest in unelected and largely unaccountable officials at local level and in the Custom House. If we have anything to say about the principle of subsidiarity as it applies in a European context, and it should apply generally, it is that we should be reinvesting in our local government and in the councillors that we have who work very hard throughout the country and give them back those powers. These have been stripped away successively over a number of years. These powers range from planning to involvement in a whole range of other issues from water, to roads, budgets and all of the other factors. We have a very effective group of councillors around the country.We have an incredibly effective group of councillors around the country but, although I was pleased that we made steps towards removing the strategic housing development legislation last night, the central government and Legislature still need to make progress in that regard.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Since the Taoiseach's time is precious and he must get on a flight, I ask the Senators to restrict their remarks to one minute. We all want to hear the response.

Photo of Micheál CarrigyMicheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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The Taoiseach is welcome. It is an honour for me to stand here as a Member of the Oireachtas addressing him.

I want to raise a couple of local issues. I concur with the comments of Senator Murphy on just transition. Not enough projects have got off the ground. More funding needs to be made available. The local contribution – 25% – is becoming increasingly difficult to make due to increasing costs. That is an issue. Perhaps another meeting in the not-too-distant future with the party leaders, the just transition commissioner and Oireachtas Members from the area would be a good idea.

Considering that the Taoiseach mentioned the road network, I want to highlight the N4. With the 2:1 arrangement in respect of expenditure on public transport and roads, it will be extremely difficult to get everything done, but if you look at a map of Ireland you will see the one missing piece of the jigsaw is the N4 from Mullingar to Roosky. That has to be a priority ahead of many other road projects.

The Taoiseach mentioned the advancement regarding special needs assistants, SNAs, when he was Minister for Education. I want to see further investment in the school inclusion model under the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and in the progressing disabilities services scheme, which has been rolled out by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to make sure all children receive the supports they need. Senator McGreehan mentioned that we pass by the Proclamation every day we come in here. It refers to cherishing all the children of the nation equally. One hundred and five years later, we are not doing so. We are getting there but a further investment needs to be made to ensure that we look after all the children and so they will get the services they need.

We need to extend the use of the Covid passes further. We need to develop a new communications strategy or develop a new communications unit to make sure we get across to the unvaccinated the damage they are doing to our hospital system.

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Mark Wall.

I want to flag some areas that I hope are of importance to the Taoiseach. I could not stand up here without referring to student nurses and midwives. As a former Minister for Health, the Taoiseach will be all too familiar with the work they do, but the issue of pay has still not been resolved. This is scandalous. I plead with the Taoiseach to show leadership on this issue; leadership that I can assure him the country is calling out for.

The Taoiseach said in his opening statement that education is the great enabler. As a Senator for students, I obviously agree, but without vigorous investment and a sustained long-term funding model for the further and higher education sector, education will remain the great enabler for some and will still be beyond the reach of many. The Taoiseach created a new Department, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, under his leadership but, without long-sought-after funding to stabilise the sector and without tackling precarious employment in the sector, this will be a lost country-defining opportunity.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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Like other members, I welcome the Taoiseach to the House. I consider it an honour to have been elected to this House. I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach has come to listen to us today.

I join the Taoiseach in thanking all our front-line workers but there is one cohort of front-line workers on whom I want to concentrate. Since I come from the great county of Kildare, it may come as no surprise that I am referring to our Defence Forces. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach, as Head of the Government, clarified today for those serving in our Defence Forces that the Government is committed to the future of the force, to rebuilding the force of 9,500 serving personnel and to addressing the pay-and-conditions problems that dominate the issues encountered daily by the Defence Forces' representative bodies, namely, the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and PDFORRA. This would certainly be welcomed by all those who represent our country with pride and loyalty. It would be most welcome among their families.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I thank the Taoiseach for being here this afternoon. We need to name the date for the Citizens' Assembly on drugs. I am aware that the Taoiseach launched the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign event today. The rumour, if you talk to people in addiction industries, is that the relevant Ministry is in a pair of safe hands but we have to deal with unelected officials every time we try to deal with the Department. No decisions are being made regarding drugs by the Minister. When I think of safe hands, I think of all the people in communities such as mine who wake up every morning and open their child's bedroom door wondering whether he or she will be alive or dead after drug use the night before. I also think of all the women struggling because of crack cocaine use. Nothing, in any shape or form, has been done. For up to 15 years, we have had different Ministers with the same script. We need to name the date for the Citizens' Assembly so we can finally have an open and honest discussion and take real action on the issue of drugs.

Photo of Catherine ArdaghCatherine Ardagh (Fianna Fail)
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It is a genuine honour to be on the Taoiseach's Fianna Fáil team in the Seanad. I have a few small issues to raise.

I commend the Taoiseach and his team on all the women's health initiatives. The shared island unit is a huge part of our tradition as members of Fianna Fáil and a huge part of our republican ethos of treating children equally, but it would be remiss of me to stand up here without mentioning HSE community health organisation 7, CHO 7. There is a serious lack of funding and a serious fallout over missing timeframes for the assessment of needs. No therapies are being provided to children in CHO 7. It extends all the way from south Dublin to Kildare. It affects such a huge part of our country. Could this be addressed? I am aware that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is doing a huge amount of work on it. Everything is in her way. She is devoting so much energy to addressing the matter but she has not got the necessary resources. If she had proper support, she could tackle this area.

I realise the Taoiseach must feel he is in a clinic here. I congratulate him on his stewardship during the Covid pandemic but I would like to do a little more on antigen testing. Antigen tests should be accessible for free on a widespread basis nationally.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I welcome my constituency colleague, the Taoiseach, to the House. I am certainly glad he is here. I will not give a list of different things. When I heard Senator Keogan's contribution, I said, “Mother of God, where am I going next?” The Senator should note the job of the Government is to lead. The Taoiseach has been very clear. I reiterate here today that vaccinations work. Our job as legislators is to bring people with us on the matter of public health. The Taoiseach has done that from the beginning. He urged us in his speech to get vaccinated. Let us encourage people to get vaccinated. The message coming out from Seanad Éireann today should be that we want people to get vaccinated to protect the public health of all of us.

I am sure the Taoiseach wishes he had not condemned the communications strategy under Mr. John Concannon because we need clear messaging from the Government and all of us on what is happening in our country. There is disquiet, concern and fear, and this requires leadership. I commend the Taoiseach and his work and stewardship of the Government. I wish him every continued success in his role.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Before I call on the Taoiseach, I call on my county colleague, Senator Ned O'Sullivan.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. I am delighted to see the Taoiseach here to address us. This is important and we appreciate it. No better man than the Taoiseach to be here because, of all the party leaders, he was the only one in these buildings who stood by the Seanad when it was fighting for survival. I thank him for that.

It is Deputy Micheál Martin's fate, and ours, that he is Taoiseach in the middle of what is probably the worst crisis this country has faced in many years. The last was probably the Emergency. The country had good leadership then. We were in good hands then and we are in good hands now. The only difference I see is that de Valera had 95% support in Leinster House for the difficult decisions he had to make during the war. Now it seems the national interest is playing a very poor second to party interests and populist irresponsibility. That represents a sad day. In my 35 years as a public representative, I never believed I would see that day coming. It makes me worried about the future.

The Taoiseach showed his courage and mettle by introducing the smoking ban, which I supported, and by standing by the Seanad and taking a courageous stance on the question of the eighth amendment and other social issues. I do not doubt that he will continue to give good leadership.

My colleagues have spoken about the shared island initiative. It is very important. I hope the Taoiseach will persist with it. It is the way forward. The Good Friday Agreement was founded on engagement, consensus and dialogue. I am afraid we are starting to hear a lot of the old, tired rhetoric and narrative that got us nowhere for nearly 100 years. There are those who are calling for a Border poll right now. This is highly irresponsible. The shared island unit can bring all the various strands of opinion together. There is no point in people having big meetings around the country and talking to themselves.The Taoiseach's shared island unit wants to talk to all sides. As Senators Blaney and McGreehan said, we have to talk to everybody. I was very proud that the Government was represented at the religious function in Armagh. It was very important to rectify a situation that had deteriorated very rapidly. I am very proud to see Deputy Micheál Martin here as Taoiseach, I am proud he is my Taoiseach and I am proud he is leader of my party.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Senators for their contribution. The Leas-Chathaoirleach will have the last word on this but, before that, I call on the Taoiseach.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Senators for their varied contributions. I may not be able to get through every contribution in my reply but there are common thematic elements to the debate to which I can respond.

Quite a number of Senators spoke about the broader issue of this island and its future. I think Senator Doherty started off in that vein when she referred to the shared island initiative and the importance of listening. That is a skill set we could all do better with and one I could improve on. It is the most fundamental skill set in respect of reconciliation on the island. At the core of the Good Friday Agreement were three sets of relationships, namely, the British-Irish relationship, the North-South relationship and the relationship between the two traditions on the island, specifically within Northern Ireland. Irrespective of whatever happens into the future, those three sets of relationships, no matter their configuration, must be an integral part of the future.

I was invited to go on a journey in respect of the Good Friday Agreement and I have been on that journey for a long time. When I look back on the 1940s and 1950s, I see that the anti-partition movement, specifically the Irish Anti-Partition League, was quite sterile in the end. It achieved absolutely nothing. It took Lemass to go across the Border and to shake O'Neill's hand, the first move from the South, for engagement to take place. That was considered at the time to be something that should not be done, was against all principles, etc. Then, when I was eight or nine, the North erupted. Most my adult life was a daily diet of bombs, murder and mayhem. I thought I would never see the end of it. I never thought I would be in government actually presiding over the Good Friday Agreement. I recall the cessation of violence and the Downing Street Declaration. What that took was that listening skill of putting ourselves in what we perceive to be the other side's position, understanding where they are coming from, they, too, understanding where we are coming from, and being able to work out a shared future. That should be at the core of everything we do. If we start putting forward timelines and saying, "It is now or never: you must come on board", we just re-embed the trenches, it seems to me.

I recall that way back in 1992, I went to Corrymeela for a weekend with 11 other Senators and Deputies. The former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was there. We were all backbench Deputies at the time. There were 12 unionists and loyalists at the Corrymeela event. The DUP was going to participate but the late Ian Paisley, God be good to him, pulled his party members out at the last minute in order, as we know, to undermine the official unionists who were there. While I was in Ian Paisley's constituency, he was thundering on "RTÉ News at One" about the disgrace that Dermot Ahern and Micheál Martin were in his constituency. I will not take him off, but it was quite interesting. The point I am making is that, during that weekend, we learned so much about one another. I will always remember - I have said this before - that we were asked by the facilitators, who were Quakers, I think, to put up on a blackboard everything we thought about unionism. What we put up was not good. I remember one person quipped, "Just give us five minutes to get out of here before they see what we have written about them." The unionists and loyalists were doing a similar exercise in another room. We compared notes. They thought the parish priest wrote my speeches. That is not true, by the way, just to make that clear. That was their perception of the politics in the South. One of ours said unionists do not smile. The gap in understanding was so wide, but over time we gained confidence. A citizens' assembly can happen any time, but that is about frameworks and saying what model would work. That will not achieve a whole lot in the short term. It is the kinds of meetings to which I have referred that achieve things. I know that individual Senators and Deputies have been up and down meeting different groups of people, not only gaining confidence in one another's company-----

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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I certainly have been.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----but also understanding the pressures they are under.

The resolution of the protocol issue is about that same exercise. To be fair to Commissioner Šefovi, I asked him to go to the North and he did, as did the Minister, Deputy Coveney. Commissioner Šefovi went to the North, listened to the people on the ground, came away with a different perspective, to be fair to him, and persuaded colleagues in Europe, some of whom believe he has gone too far with the package he has produced. The UK Government is engaging. There is now a sense that there is a bit of momentum that could go either way.

We need to double down. My regret about the Good Friday Agreement is that it has not fully realised its potential. There has been too much stop-start, with the Assembly being absent for so long during different periods. That does not build confidence among the electorate and the public that the institutions will work. There has been an alienation from the institutions because of their stop-start nature.

As for the shared island initiative, notwithstanding people's constitutional preference, to which it is without prejudice, there is a hell of a lot we can get on with to build that shared understanding. I was delighted to see recently, when I was speaking online, an all-island biodiversity network. We will fund that through the shared island unit. It involves people getting together on the environment and climate change. They are putting politics outside the door. They are of the unionist tradition, the republican tradition; it does not matter. The north-west partnership development group is fascinating and has a great record on economics and enterprise. It involves all shades of political opinion between the two councils in the North and the South, namely, Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council. It has a very strong, robust economic agenda.

We need to build and build in a very pragmatic way to get things done and improve the quality of life of people overall. Yes, people are of course entitled to pursue constitutional objectives and ideals. That is accepted. However, we need to give ourselves space to engage and to give people the confidence to be comfortable in one another's company.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Those things can happen in parallel, perhaps.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will turn to antigen testing and Covid-19. We are going through different phases of Covid-19 and learning all along the way. The vaccination programme has been very successful and it is because of that that the country is still open. The majority of those who end up in ICU are unvaccinated, and most of those who are vaccinated have underlying conditions. Consequently, making sure that those who are immunocompromised and who have underlying conditions get vaccinated first is essential. I cannot overstate the importance of that because it will reduce hospitalisation and ICU admission over time. It should be remembered, however, that this is not just about the health service; it is about genuinely wanting to prevent people from getting very sick and dying. That has to be the fundamental objective of public health policy. When I say "different phases", I mean we have got a lot done - a crude lot because we did not know this virus at first and there was a lot of uncertainty. We got a second lot done with the Alpha variant. In both cases there was no vaccination and no inherent protection against the virus. The immunity that vaccination provides against serious illness and against mortality is strong, not so much against infection. The booster will give us added protection. We have to try to arrive at an equilibrium that keeps open and protects what we have open while reducing or putting a lid on the number of people getting sick. The Chief Medical Officer put it very well yesterday when he said the thousands of people who could get Covid next month under current modelling do not have to get it. That just means all of us collectively reducing our socialisation. We can turn that modelling in a better direction and reduce the pressures on the health service. The health service is under pressure from other issues. For example, respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, and other respiratory diseases, not Covid, have been the biggest factor in children being admitted to hospital. Most people in paediatric hospitals will say that.

We had widened the deployment of antigen testing. There have been public health issues.The public health chiefs have concerns about the widespread use of antigen tests. I put that on the record, to be fair. I support the use of antigen testing and its increased use. There is concern about its use in a proper way, that is, doing it while one is asymptomatic. The evidence in the research shows that many people are not using antigen tests in the most optimal way. A significant, comprehensive communications campaign on antigen testing will be needed. We have widened the scheme. Some 3,000 people per day are now receiving antigen tests, in line with public health policy as to close contacts. Approximately half a million tests have been distributed across all sectors. There have been approximately 100,000 tests used by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine alone, in meat plants and so on. They are being deployed in third level colleges. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, took out a private initiative some time ago on that deployment. Antigen tests will be rolled out in education settings. We will also work with childcare settings in that respect.

The HSE’s antigen test portal has been set up because it wants people to feed antigen test results to it. We did set up the independent expert group. Indeed, Professor Mary Horgan was on national radio today and she made similar points. We also will be providing a wider distribution of antigen testing across society. I believe the way antigen testing has evolved has been positive, effective and targeted with outcomes. However, antigen testing is not the silver bullet, by any means. It is just a supplemental tool. The PCR tests remain the gold standard. We did approximately 196,000 PCR tests in the last seven days and antigen testing can be a useful supplement to that. As the booster campaign is rolling out, we will reduce the risk to those most at risk of admission to hospitals. We will reduce their vulnerability by the roll-out of the booster itself. We depend on the roll-out of the booster on the national immunisation advisory committee.

All of us, as politicians, can get frustrated. We have our views. We, like anybody else, can look at the situation and say “they should do that, they should do this”. Yet, we should be careful to protect the edifice. When I say the edifice, I mean the different layers of decision-making that has protected us from the outset of the pandemic. At the outset, all political parties were in agreement. I was in opposition at the time, albeit that was during an interim period, the interregnum between the election and the formation of the Government. I was clear that public health had to be at the centre of the country's response to the pandemic. We can have 101 opinions in society but if we do not have a central pillar or an edifice to get us through this, we will end up dividing all over the place. That does not mean that centrality of public health advice is God or anything like that, but it has to be respected.

Likewise, on the national immunisation advisory committee, we may be impatient or may want faster outcomes but what ultimately gives the vaccination programme the confidence that people have in it, is that it is not the politicians who decide that people should want to get vaccinated, because, for instance, we politicians think vaccination works, so off you go and get vaccinated. Rather, it is an independent scientific body that decides. That is crucial for the doctors and medical professionals who administer vaccines. They will not administer vaccines on the whim of a political order or edict. However, they will do it when they have the authoritative authorisation of their peers. Therefore, NIAC, public health, NPHET and the Government have to work collectively and with one message. It is important that we do not undermine the edifice too much. Ultimately, it is that pillar that underpins the entire approach to pandemic so far. Of course, we can improve. Of course, we can do better. However, in my view, we will get through this pandemic, this phase and this fourth surge. It is welcome that antivirals, medicines and therapeutics are coming. They are now being authorised by European Medicines Agency, EMA. That is welcome. Over time, we will have to live with Covid-19. However, we will have far better responses, combinations of vaccines and medicines, behaviours and so forth.

A range of other issues were raised. I get the forestry and agriculture issues. On planning, the Attorney General has taken on a huge task in a fundamental overhaul of the planning code, to streamline it to ensure we can go one layer from council, to An Bord Pleanála, to judicial review, to the courts and to Europe. We need to streamline it. Communities, of course, have to be at the heart of planning but planning cannot go on for years either. Let us be clear about that. There have been serial objections across the board to a lot of the forestry applications. We need commercial afforestation. We also need native woodlands to a far greater extent. We need to incentivise that more. We need to create new income streams for farmers for the growing of native trees on their farms. They have to become the guardians of our biodiversity but they have to be rewarded for doing that.

The Commission on the Defence Forces and their future is an important piece of work. I am concerned about it. The backbone of any country is its defence forces. I mean this in the widest possible way. The Defence Forces came out at the very beginning of Covid-19. Their logistical know-how and above all their peacekeeping credentials have brought great honour to the country. They have enabled to Ireland to have its own distinct role in international affairs around conflict prevention and peacekeeping itself. We have taken a leadership role in that respect, particularly in gender-based conflict. We take a human rights-based approach to complex situations and humanitarian corridors.

Different remarks were made about Europe. I am passionate about our European membership and about our UN membership. It is extremely important that we celebrate those as a country. At the core of that is our enterprise agenda. The biggest decision we took was in the 1960s, when we decided to open out. We were too inward and too protectionist. We opened out. There is a huge Single Market. We have a lot of know-how. We have to sell our goods and services to the world, as a small island. I also think we can bring our values toward as well.

I think I have been going on for too long, a Chathaoirligh. I take on board everything that has been said. I have noted every constituency issue or road project that was identified-----

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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And schools.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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Do not forget secondary schools.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----and schools in Duleek. In respect of Galway and the west, we want to economically redress the regional imbalance in economic development. The whole national development plan is about regional cities growing, as well as about getting higher population growth on that western seaboard and so forth. I apologise that I cannot get to every topic.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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And just transition.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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And just transition. Take care and thank you very much.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Before Members leave, I ask the Leas-Chathaoirleach to say few words. We had 30 Senators speaking. That is half of the Seanad. As more than 100 topics were raised, there was no possibility that the Taoiseach could address all of the topics. However, I thank him for taking notes on the topics. I now call on the Leas-Chathaoirleach, who has two minutes.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Is cúis áthais agus bróid dom mo bhuíochas agus buíochas mo chomhghleacaithe a ghabháil leis an Taoiseach inniu. Táimid fíorbhuíoch de as ucht a bheith linn agus as a ráiteas cuimsitheach dearfach. Chuir sé dúshlán agus fís os ár gcomhair. Bíodh sé cinnte go mbeidh ár dtacaíocht agus ár n-iarrachtaí aige chun na haidhmeanna sin a bhaint amach.

It is my pleasure and privilege to thank the Taoiseach for being with us today, and for the visionary, challenging and comprehensive presentation he laid before us. In his fine introduction, the Cathaoirleach spoke of the Taoiseach’s reforming zeal across many areas of Government and across many Departments. Outstanding among those is the smoking ban, which was pioneering. It has had a profound and positive effect on society. As a resident of a Border county, I particularly wish the Taoiseach success in his recent initiative, the shared island unit. I hope it will build on the recent growth of trade, build interpersonal and communal contact, and create a mutual understanding that will ultimately create a union of hearts and minds in new structures in a new united Ireland.

Today, the Taoiseach has continued an honourable tradition of taoisigh addressing this House. He has committed himself to supporting our wish to lead the scrutiny of EU legislation. We are delighted with that. He is a strong supporter of this House and he reasserted that today. He also placed before us a positive visionary statement. It not only gives us hope, but challenges us to work to support that. Thank you a Chathaoirligh, and I thank the Taoiseach for being with us.

Sitting suspended at 3.30 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.