Thursday, 2 December 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Our Cathaoirleach is certainly unique and one in a million. Everyday is a school day. I did not know Santa was from Finland. Happy Finnish day on Monday.
The Order of Business is No.1, motion regarding the arrangements of the sitting of the House tomorrow Friday, 3 December 2021, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; and No.2, statements on Covid-19 and the new measures from the Department of Education, to be taken today at 1 p.m. and to conclude no later than 2.30 p.m., with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, all Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.
I will start by updating Members on how we got on in our football match yesterday. I am sure Senator Ruane will speak about it, but it was brilliant. It is fair to say the Breakthrough organisation wiped the floor with us. If it were not for our star player, who was our goalkeeper, it would have been a lot worse. We managed to claw back a couple of goals at the end and I managed to get my foot on the ball at some stage, so that was a positive.
We are not totally wounded today; we are managing to walk around. It was great craic. I thank Senator Ruane for organising it. It was a nice thing to do yesterday.
I raise an issue I read about this morning, which was one of the most distressing articles I have read in a very long time. It was a report by RTÉ on the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan. It was shocking to read that almost a million children are at risk of dying of hunger within weeks - not in long term. Some 3.2 million children are suffering from acute food poverty. Women are not allowed to work outside of the home now and it is impacting on its economy, which has been in free fall since the West pulled out last August. With protracted drought and the displacement of millions of its population because of the crisis and conflict, many citizens, many human beings, are at risk of dying of starvation. This is an appalling indictment on our world and all of the First World countries that should be coming to the people of Afghanistan's aid, but do not seem to be doing a good enough job at it.
International aid has been cut drastically because the Taliban has regained control, which is appalling. At the end of the day, it does not matter who is running the country. Of course that is something we have to work on, but we cannot leave people in that terrible situation, which aid agencies are calling hell on earth. That is how they describe Afghanistan.
The United Nations Development Programme estimates that 97% of Afghan people will slip below the poverty line if something is not done. That is almost every person living in that country. Right now, more than half of its population, 23 million people out 40 million, are already in poverty and below the food poverty line. Some 95% of Afghans do not have enough food to sustain them on a daily basis, with parents going without food to feed their children. It is an incredibly distressing thing to read. It is an appalling indictment on all of the countries that pulled out, in particular the United States, but also the European Union which could be stepping up to the plate, but is not. That is because we are so consumed with all of our own problems and dealing with the pandemic, which of course is important and we are trying to protect our people. However, there are children on death's door and nobody seems to be doing a damned thing about it.
Despite being a small member state, Ireland is a very influential member state. We have a voice and a seat at the table on the UN Security Council, and at the top of the European Union as well. We need to hear from the Minister for Foreign Affairs as to what Ireland is doing about this. What role are we playing? What conversations are we having to address this? What steps are we taking to increase our aid to Afghanistan and to assist all of those fantastic aid organisations, without which there would be no assistance to those poor people. My heart goes out to them. I hope the global community can come together and try to address what is now a humanitarian disaster, but within weeks could become so much worse.
I wish all Finnish people a happy national day next week. We all know businesses that have had Christmas parties and bookings for smaller gatherings and groups coming up to Christmas cancelled because of the increase in Covid cases and the current necessary health restrictions. The hospitality sector, above any sector, has faced tremendous challenges since the start of this pandemic.
I served in government when this pandemic started. We introduced the temporary wage subsidy scheme, which was replaced by the employment wage subsidy scheme in September last year. There are a number of terms and conditions for businesses that have and maintained a valid tax clearance certificate, and the subsidy is based on employee gross wages.I received an email this morning from a business owner which read as follows.
The bottom has fallen out of the hospitality sector here. With the panic of the new variant, we expect to see a significant drop in Christmas bookings and who knows what the new year will bring. There is a lot of fear out there. I am carrying eight staff at the moment. It is difficult to turn over enough to pay the wage bill, never mind make a surplus. You have to continue the employment wage subsidy scheme for hospitality at the November rates. I couldn't continue in the new year haemorrhaging money like we are now and for the next few weeks with the resurgence of the virus fear factor.
This is typical of the cases on which we have all received correspondence and phone calls. People are genuinely concerned about the Christmas period, which is traditionally a time of celebration when money is spent in the hospitality sector and one of the high points before the fall-off, as it were, in January and February.
The employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, has been important. The Government has provided a huge level of investment to support businesses throughout the pandemic in various forms, including the EWSS, the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, and the rates waiver. It has not been found wanting. However, having taken the decision in better times, when Covid cases were reduced and at a lower level, to cut the level of the EWSS, we now find restrictions being reintroduced and people cancelling bookings. Those in the hospitality sector are justifiably concerned. I know NPHET is meeting today and will be advising the Government, which in turn will make decisions on what it needs to do. It is incumbent on the Government to continue to support the hospitality sector, particularly to get businesses through the Christmas period, and to maintain the EWSS rates at the pre-November levels. I ask the Leader to engage and write to the Tánaiste to ensure that happens in the run-up to the Christmas period.
The hospitality sector is important throughout the country, both in urban and rural areas, and employs a large number of people. We know the importance of the tourism sector. If hospitality businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, do not survive the Christmas period and into the new year, they will not be here for future tourism seasons. I ask the Leader, on behalf of the House, to write to the Tánaiste on the issue.
Before coming to the matter I intended to raise today, I note the Leas-Chathaoirleach acknowledged, and rightly so, Finland's national day. In a light-hearted way, we referred to Santa as being from Finland. Senator Chambers then raised the issue of Afghanistan. I fully agree with the point she made. Let us come closer to home, to the European Union, of which we are members. We could do more, and we need to have a bigger conversation on the issue. What will Santa be bringing to the children of Afghanistan? Let us think about that question over the next few days. Perhaps we will have a conversation on it at another time.
I raise an issue relating to young farmers. Yesterday, at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, we were joined by the president of Macra na Feirme, Mr. John Keane. I am not sure if Senators know him but, by golly, they should watch him. He is a guy who is going places. He is highly articulate and an expert on agriculture and food. At the meeting, he talked about farmers, young farmers in particular. He stated that only 5% of our national farmers are young farmers under the age of 35. That is an extraordinary situation. He talked about the transition and supports. However, what really impressed me about Mr. Keane was his eloquence and his knowledge of eco-schemes.
We recently talked about peat. We must be careful not to lose the message that farmers are the custodians of our environment. They want to play their role. It is too easy to demonise them. Many people have demonised farmers in terms of their role. They want the supports to carry out their role. There are seven EU eco-schemes that farmers can avail of, but as Mr. Keane pointed out at yesterday's meeting, these must be expanded. The EU needs to provide education and training and certificates to young farmers who want to upskill. The education and training should be delivered on a modular basis across agriculture, because young farmers also have to work. The young farmers are very impressive.
Mr. Keane stated that the issues he would like to see addressed include climate change mitigation, adaptation, improvements in water quality, biodiversity, soil management and animal welfare. He dealt with the issues in a most comprehensive way in this contribution. If Members have a moment, they should listen back to the meeting. He is a very impressive president of a most impressive organisation, which represents the next generation of farmers and custodians of our environment.
I know we have a busy schedule at the moment. I ask the Leader that perhaps in the new year, we have a specific conversation, debate and engagement in this House with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to set out the eco-schemes that are available to farmers and to shine a light on the enormous, positive and good work that our farmers are doing for our environment in Ireland.
I commend the Leader on wearing a red ribbon today. Yesterday was World AIDS Day. It is 40 years since the discovery of AIDS and the start of the epidemic. I would like to place on record the memory of all those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses and reiterate the message of U=U, or undetectable equals untransmittable. This is the scientific fact that if you are on effective treatment for HIV, you cannot pass it on to your partner. I also encourage people to get tested not just for HIV, but to know their sexual health status. Cases of sexually transmitted infections, STIs, are very much on the rise, since many our sexual health services were closed during the pandemic. Pre-exposure prophylaxsis, PrEP, which many campaigned for over a number of years, is also available through those services. It is antiretroviral medication that is taken daily or on an event basis, and has been effective across all populations. I encourage everyone to educate themselves and each other so that we can end and eradicate stigma.
Prior to Covid, Ireland had the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in Europe, showing the need for testing and investment in sexual health services, education and outreach. As a whole, the world is off track in delivering the shared commitment to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. I will read some figures. In 2020, there were 37 million people living with HIV, 1.5 million new HIV infections and 680,000 AIDS-related deaths. According to UNAIDS, around 65% of HIV infections globally were among sex workers and their clients, gay men and other men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, transgender people and their sexual partners. Even before the Covid pandemic hit, many of the populations most at risk were not being reached with HIV testing, prevention and care services. There are obvious and very disturbing parallels between access to HIV treatment and access to Covid-19 vaccines. It is estimated that between 1997 and 2006, 12 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses in low and middle income countries because the price of medicines was too high and out of reach for most countries affected by HIV.
The third sustainable development goal aims to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. Unrelenting political commitment is needed from Ireland and the world in order to achieve that goal.
I agree with the sentiments of Senator Chambers on Afghanistan. It is important that we have a discussion of the issue. I, too, read the distressing article mentioned by the Senator, which reported that over 1 million children are at risk of starvation. It is an issue we need to discuss and do more on, as colleagues have said.
I want to raise two other issues. The first concerns sport. I know many Senators have a wide and varying interest in sport. I wish to highlight a growing issue I have come across and which was discussed by the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media yesterday, namely, the abuse of referees. Having spent well over 30 years playing and coaching in the GAA in County Kildare, I can say that it is a problem. As was outlined at the committee meeting yesterday, it is a problem to varying degrees in the three sports that were represented at the meeting. It is an issue that we, in the Oireachtas, must take seriously. I have discussed the matter with my colleague, Councillor Paul O'Brien, among other friends and colleagues in a number of different sports. Councillor O'Brien is an ex-president of the Irish Soccer Referees Society and is currently chairman of the Wicklow branch of the organisation. It was very worrying to hear its representative at the meeting, Mr. Sean Slattery, confirm that 66% of those who took the organisation's referee beginner course are no longer refereeing.We all know that without a referee, we have no game. I would appreciate if the Leader could arrange a debate with the Minister of State with responsibility for sport on the matter. I have seen the silent-sideline model work successfully. We need to introduce this in all sports and treat referees with respect in the first instance. We are not asking for encouragement from the sideline to stop, but if we want the fun to continue, we need to start protecting our referees and ensuring that the abuse many of them are getting ends.
Those at yesterday's meeting sought help with professional guidance for referees who suffer online abuse and we also need to discuss that. We need to keep this conversation going and most importantly we need to do what we in the Oireachtas can to ensure that we continue to enjoy the various sports we have in this country. As we discovered recently, that enjoyment is totally dependent on having the woman or man there with the whistle; they must be protected.
There has been much discussion about the reduction of the EWSS payment. Senator Kyne mentioned how it is affecting those in our hospitality and entertainment sector. Like many other Senators, I have received many calls and emails from those involved in the industry with a very simple message: they need help now. Many have informed me that without the assistance of this payment they would simply have to shut and that many staff in the sector would lose their jobs. I will quote the operator of a bar in my home town of Athy in an email to me and other public representatives yesterday in which he stated:
My business has been destroyed. It wasn’t too bad before everything reopened to the regular 2:30 but after 4 weeks of trading late, our customers have disappeared with the new closing times...
Is there anything that can be done, we were better off closed with the supports and now with the wage subsidy cut our future is not looking good at all with thoughts of complete closure as we cannot sustain this.
I NEED HELP
That was one of the many emails I received yesterday. I hope that the Taoiseach and his colleagues in government have listened to the many calls to reverse this cut and support this industry at this most difficult time for them all.
Thankfully I have been back playing football for a while, so I am still match fit and was able to bounce back this morning. It was good fun. At the end we had a brief presentation from Lev from the Irish Homeless Street Leagues which I have been supporting for some years. A few years ago, we developed a bid to host the Homeless World Cup here in Ireland. We were shortlisted for selection and then Covid arrived. Obviously, we were not able to progress that because the Homeless World Cup has not happened. We will need about €2 million in funding. We had some conversations with Dublin City Council. Over the coming months I will be looking to colleagues to come together to support us in ramping that bid back up and bringing the Homeless World Cup here to Ireland.
The main issue I wish to raise today is a debate on the use of artificial intelligence, AI, in decisions in Ireland. In the United States there is enormous use of AI and algorithms and there is bias in algorithms. There is greater use of companies such as Clearview AI. The UK is using and relying on algorithms much more and that is also the case here in Ireland. Obviously, the Department of Social Protection has a major resource in terms of its use of biometric processing that would have been brought in at the time of the introduction of the public services card. Such data and algorithms are becoming more widely used in the public sector in Ireland.
I do not think the public really understands the architecture of that and the ethics underpinning that, and the fact that we can demand an explanation if an algorithm has been used to make a particular decision. I suppose my interest in this area is that I am currently taking a course on AI and ethics to develop my understanding to be able to take this forward. Obviously, my fear is of inbuilt discrimination, based on race or ethnicity. If we do not fully understand it, how can we engage with AI and the use of algorithms with big tech to actually build that data?
The Seanad should begin to think about those questions and have those debates. I am not even sure which Minister would take such a debate. Where are algorithms currently being used? How are the data trained? How much human oversight is involved in that? We need to begin to arm ourselves as policymakers and politicians to ensure that whenever an algorithm is being used, we understand its architecture and can work to ensure that it is not being used to discriminate against any community based on class, race or gender. We need to think about how we can do that.
I will not be able to stay for the Leader's response as my colleague, Senator Flynn, is launching the report from the Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community.
I agree with Senator Kyne's comments about the hospitality business, a matter I spoke about yesterday. I believe something will happen there. I know the Government is very conscious of the difficulties.
It is a great morning - I know the Leader will be very happy about this - because last night the Irish organisation, See Her Elected, scooped the award in the democracy category of the European Innovation in Politics Awards 2021. That group has significant connections with the midlands and west. It is a fantastic community-led rural initiative designed to support women in politics and in particular to get women into local and national politics. The entire team were there last night, including the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, from the Leader's party, Dr. Michelle Maher, Tara Farrell and Mairéad O'Shea. Some Senators will know Mairéad O'Shea who was my PA when I was a Deputy from 2016 to 2020 and was well known around this House. I am particularly happy about this award. I am sure everybody will join me in wishing the group well.
The neurology services at University Hospital Galway have only four specialist nurses but need about 12 or 13. It is causing considerable difficulties. There is a waiting list for neurology services of more than 24,000 as far as I know. University Hospital Galway takes many cases from the west and north west. If it had extra nurses it would alleviate much of the backlog of cases. I ask the Leader to send a note to the Minister of Health to find where the hold-up is. Those nurses need to be appointed as a matter of urgency and I hope it can be done.
I welcome the announcement of the new mica scheme the Cabinet approved on Tuesday. It is appropriate that people would be 100% compensated. However, I have concern that County Clare has not yet been included in that scheme. I understand that there is ongoing engagement between departmental officials and officials from Clare County Council, but it is very frustrating that Clare has still not been approved for inclusion in that scheme. The people with defective homes in County Clare through no fault of their own are as entitled to get redress as the people in Donegal, Mayo and other counties. The Minister should come to the House before Christmas to explain what on earth is going on that Clare has not been included. I know there are issues with the scheme and that not everybody is happy with it. However, I regard them as technical issues. If Clare is included, the technical issues can be dealt with, engaged with and overcome. It is simply not good enough that Clare has not been included yet.
I read this morning of a partnership between Queen’s University Belfast and the Royal Air Force. The Leader will recall that the Royal Air Force protects our skies because we cannot do that ourselves. It is depressing that the Royal Air Force is investing in cybersecurity innovation systems in Northern Ireland and our Minister for Defence lives looking over at Haulbowline where seven out of nine ships are frequently tied up.Deputy Simon Coveney is a fantastic Minister for Foreign Affairs and I would never take away from that but right now, in the view of many people in uniform, he is a useless Minister for Defence. We have a junior Minister we never hear from. As I said, we have ships tied at Haulbowline and Army barracks are falling apart all over the country. We have men in uniform screaming at me about needing an adjudicator in the conciliation and arbitration scheme. It is a part-time job and at a recent conference the Minister said he could not appoint the person because the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform had to sanction it. Where are we going in this country that a Cabinet Minister cannot make an appointment to a part-time job?
We have grown a monster with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It was needed after 2008 when we needed to get to get this country back on its feet but when the Department is putting its finger in the micromanagement of another Department, we have a serious problem on our hands. Every single Minister coming before us now tells us the Department of Expenditure and Reform must approve this or that. Even in trying to look after secretarial pay here, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform must sanction it. Where are we going? It is time to rein in the power of that Department. It was not very good at controlling the salary of its former Secretary General when he moved to the Department of Health.
Maybe it is time for the Government to step back and look at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform because the reform side is not working. There is a Minister for Defence who is, for all intents and purposes, nothing but a shadow. I take much pain in saying that because I like Deputy Simon Coveney. He is a decent guy who works really hard in the foreign affairs area.
Every Department has recently sought additional funding for various different things. We heard the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, the other day looking for it. There is absolutely nothing for defence. Somebody must wake up in this country because defence is key to foreign direct investment. We have no ships minding our seas or sight of what is going on under the water. The Royal Air Force, meanwhile, is minding our sky. It is a really bad day for Ireland.
This week the all-Ireland amateur one act drama festival takes place in Ennis and for the amateur drama movement it has been a particularly difficult 18 months, as we might appreciate. Many drama groups were preparing for the full-length drama festival when the pandemic hit. They had to cancel festivals and their plays were never performed. We have now finally seen the one act festival circuit over the past couple of weeks and I wish the best of luck to all the finalists in Ennis this weekend.
It is really important we acknowledge the amateur drama movement right across this country. Drama, musicals and such things bring our communities together but they all came to a shuddering halt. The local organisations kept going and although it will be difficult, it is important we support them in bringing our communities back together. To all of those taking part in the festival this weekend, we wish them the very best of luck. It is also important we remember the importance of amateur drama and musicals and how they bring our communities together. As we come out of this pandemic, we must support them because of the critical role they play.
I do not agree with Senator Craughwell's comments about the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney. He has been an excellent Minister across any Department he was in. I have every confidence he will deal with the challenges ahead.
I wish to speak to the just transition and the Premier Lakelands Food Hub in Longford. I am delighted Enterprise Ireland support the change in the plan to develop a food hub in Lanesborough in County Longford following the closure of the Lough Ree power station. There is €1 million in funding that comes with that and significant funding from the just transition. There is an issue and Senator Eugene Murphy would be very well aware of it too. The €500,000 due to be promised by the ESB to both Lanesborough and Shannonbridge for community projects identified by the local community but that commitment has not come forth. Perhaps we could write to the ESB on behalf of the two communities to come up with the €1 million that the two communities are entitled to.
The terms of contract for the just transition commissioner are due to end shortly. Mr. Kieran Mulvey, well known to all of us through the different facets of work he has done and who is extremely experienced, has been in the role and done an excellent job working on behalf of the communities in difficult times. I ask that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, reappoint him for a further term of two years. He knows the brief inside out, the communities and the challenges, of which there are lots. We must leave Mr. Mulvey in that position to ensure we can deliver on those projects over the next number of years.
I asked the Taoiseach last week if we could facilitate a meeting involving the Oireachtas Members from the counties involved with Mr. Mulvey and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, as well as the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. This is to make a further push and ensure these projects, which we have been speaking of for a couple of years, can be delivered.
I start by wishing Homeless Period Ireland a very happy birthday. This was set up five years ago in response to the very real need for access to period products in this country. It is a small grassroots organisation I am proud to volunteer with. Ms Claire Hunt, its founder, will not mind me saying that Homeless Period Ireland should have long left the stage and it should not still exist. The programme for Government committed to rolling out free period products and in February this House had not one but two period product Bills; one passed Second Stage but still has to come to Committee Stage. In the Six Counties, my colleague and Sinn Féin MLA, Ms Karen Mullan, introduced free period products to all schools, yet here in the South, schools, food banks, homeless shelters, drug projects and community centres all still rely on Homeless Period Ireland to ensure everybody who has their period can have it with dignity.
Universal access to period products is a women's health matter and we know that using improvised materials like rags and toilet roll can cause urinary tract infections. We know school days are missed because of a lack of access to period products. With the cost of living skyrocketing, it is pushing more people into poverty and having to make impossible choices between period products and food. It seems whenever there is an international day on this matter, we get people on the bandwagon before it ultimately goes back to organisations like Homeless Period Ireland to carry on the work. Periods do not stop during pandemics and they happen every month. When will that Bill come to Committee Stage and when will we get universal access to period products?
I called yesterday for the reinstatement of the employment wage subsidy scheme. All of us in the Chamber are concerned about the hospitality and tourism industry. Last week I spoke about supporting local businesses on Black Friday. We should really get the message out there that people can support hospitality and tourism by buying vouchers and support local businesses by buying their produce. Some of them have takeaway produce or preserves, etc. It is incumbent on all of us as legislators to get the message out that we really need to support local businesses because they are suffering, especially those in the hospitality and tourism industry. I hope the employment wage subsidy scheme is reinstated to its full value but we must support local businesses by buying vouchers and gifts available locally.
I join in Senator Maria Byrne's call for the full reinstatement of the employment wage subsidy scheme. It will be vital to business continuity because of the restrictions that have been reimposed on the night-life sector and the effect of restrictions in place on other sectors at this time.
The main issue I wish to raise, however, is the revised mica scheme published on Tuesday. It is an enormous credit to the campaigners, the elected representatives and the thousands of householders who took to the streets of Dublin and who have been campaigning across Donegal and Mayo for many months and years that they have brought the Government to this point. I have read the detail in the document, and for the most part it is a very good deal. It is a real improvement on the previous versions. Those living in rented accommodation now have the comfort of knowing that the place they call home will be eligible for inclusion in the scheme, that there will be an allowance for those who have to move out of their houses into rented accommodation while works are carried out and that those who have bought houses up to 2020 will be included.
Ultimately, however, the principle of 100% redress does not exist in the scheme published on Tuesday. The sliding scale in the scheme makes little sense. The Department talks about economies of scale for bigger houses, but we have to ask what the basis was for the 24% cut in support per square foot once a house measures over 1,000 sq. ft. Is it really plausible that the average cost of construction for an entire house drops that dramatically with each additional square foot? I understand absolutely the need to protect the public finances, and we do not want to subsidise the construction of trophy homes, but I think about my experience. I grew up in a modest 1970s rural bungalow measuring approximately 130 sq. m. I now live in a house in Dublin that is much smaller than that, at 97 sq. m. If my parents were affected by mica, they would be left short. There is a real failure in just that final part of the deal to understand people's lives and homes. The sliding scale is simply not good enough. We know that this will impose a massive cost on the State. That cost has to be borne by the State and the sector. Ultimately, however, we have to get this right for these householders because this is only the tip of the iceberg. We have construction defects in Dublin that will be addressed as well, and the people affected will need full redress when that time comes.
I was not going to talk about this publicly, but I recently had Covid. I would not advise anyone to catch it. It is not particularly enjoyable. However, I discovered from my experience the real benefits of antigen tests. In recent weeks I have talked to other people who have also had Covid, and this is only anecdotal evidence, but they spoke about the benefit of antigen tests to them. Having been through this, I think a real disservice to the country was done by the comments a year ago that antigen tests were "snake oil" and by the reluctance of NPHET to endorse them sooner. Again, I speak only from my anecdotal evidence and from talking to other people. I was absolutely fine, not a breeze whatsoever, one morning. I got a phone call from someone to say I was potentially a close contact. That individual was absolutely fine but, because I got that phone call, I took an antigen test, got a positive result and was able to go straight into self-isolation. Because I was able to do so, and I live at home with my family of five, nobody else got infected because I did not spend the two days wandering around meeting people until symptoms developed. That was all because of antigen testing. I have spoken to so many other friends and colleagues who have also had Covid recently who have said exactly the same thing. I refer to people on the bus into work who had a small cough or a small headache, decided to take an antigen test, got a positive result, went straight into isolation, waited for a PCR test and, when the PCR test result came, all of a sudden realised that symptoms were coming on at that stage. It just shows the benefit of antigen testing and how useful it is. It is great to see we are on it now and it is being used widely, but a real disservice has been done to this country by not getting on board with antigen testing sooner.
We all know the legacy of certain religious institutions in the context of sex abuse and the fact that, to a large extent, they have not paid their dues in terms of the liabilities to the individuals damaged by their activities. That has manifested in a number of ways, and there is a larger issue I do not propose to discuss, but I will address an issue relating to a school in my area, Clonkeen College, which is just a couple of hundred metres away from where I grew up. It has suffered particularly as a result of the Christian Brothers' decision to sell the lands associated with the school for development rather than leaving them as playing pitches. They do this purportedly to provide compensation, whereas I believe it is a sop to allow them to sell off that land rather than taking the hit for what they owe. Whatever about that, now a large boys' secondary school in the Deansgrange-Blackrock area has lost its playing pitches, and this week we find that the governing body of the school has decided that it will not reappoint the board of management, which includes parents, and instead will appoint a single manager to manage the school. In two foul strokes they have cut parents out of the deal entirely and cut down the school community to a single functionary who will run the school. I am astonished that this is permissible in the first place, but it appears that it is under a statutory instrument from the late 1990s. It is not right. Parents are an incredibly important part of the school community. The notion that they should be cut out of management, out of the board and out of decision-making is absolutely wrong. It is incumbent on the Government, particularly the Minister for Education, to take steps to ensure that this cannot happen. It should not happen. Schools are not companies; they are communities. They need the involvement of every part of the community: parents, children, teachers - everyone.
I wish to follow on from the theme of the contribution of my colleague, Senator McGahon, namely, Covid. I raised with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, in the Seanad last night the issue of the cohort of 230,000 people who received the Johnson & Johnson Janssen vaccine, of which I am one and I know Senator McGahon is one. It is generally our age cohort that received that single-dose vaccine. The research now shows that we have limited if any protection from Covid-19 as a result of the waning immunity provided by the vaccine, yet we are told our 30-40 age group must wait in line until we are reached, which will be some time next year, maybe the end of January or February. I have to question the logic of saying the younger age cohort that received that single dose is at less risk of picking up Covid-19 than someone in the older age cohort who does have protection, albeit a declining protection, from the likes of the Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Moderna vaccines. I ask that there is correspondence between the Leader and the Minister on this issue. I know he said it is being reviewed, but this cohort of people, who have pretty much no protection from Covid-19, need to be prioritised. I ask the Leader to take that matter up with the Minister.
I wish to speak about the Connecting Ireland campaign. It is the plan of the National Transport Authority, NTA, for the next five years, from 2022 to 2026. It aims to invest in new and improved public transport services for our rural areas to connect the towns and villages all across Ireland. Why do we need to see that? We need everyone's voice right now to look at what those proposed routes are and to support the routes they want to see in their areas. We need our public transport and Transport for Ireland buses to link in with our hospitals. They need to link in with our services for people who need to attend medical appointments, be they in Portiuncula University Hospital, in my hometown of Ballinasloe, or Roscommon University Hospital, and with our primary care facilities.We need our buses to also connect for our students. We have a brand-new university in Athlone, namely, the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest, TUS. We need buses to bring our students who live within a 10 km or 20 km radius to that campus. It is the same for students who are travelling to Galway for the National University of Ireland Galway or the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, or all of our new campuses around the country. I also would like to ask that we would have joined-up-thinking and that buses also connect with train stations. Some people in cities might laugh at this because there is such good connectivity in the cities, but we have a situation in Athlone and Ballinasloe, for example, where sometimes our coach services do not connect to our train stations. The train station is 2 km outside of the town. In Athlone, the services that are now running from Dublin to Galway are private providers such Aircoach and Citylink, and they stop in areas that are not close to the train station or the bus station in Athlone. We need joined-up- thinking.
I call on all groups to make submissions. We have the proposed routes, such as the No. 23 running from Galway, Loughrea, Ballinasloe, Moore, Summerhill, and Athlone to Dublin. We have a proposed No. A79 from Ballinasloe, Ahascragh, Mountbellew, Glenamaddy and Castlerea. A new route is being proposed from Athlone to Roscommon town, which is the No. A78, via Athleague, Ballygar, and Ballyfore with three return trips per day. We also have more frequency of existing routes. I would ask that if people would like to make submissions they should please go to www.nationaltransport.ie/connecting-ireland, and they can also email. I ask people to make their submissions before Friday, 10 December, which is the deadline.
I thank Senator Dolan for mentioning the Connecting Ireland campaign. It is the first national campaign we have had to highlight the deficits that exist in connectivity. The Senator highlighted the situation in Athlone in particular, which makes no sense. I have only become aware of this since my son is now working in Athlone and he must walk 2 km to get the nearest bus, which seems a bit mad. It is a very worthwhile campaign and I thank the Senator for raising it here today.
Senators Cummins and McGahon both raised Covid issues this morning. I wish Senator McGahon well. It is good to see him back in full health. There were two perspectives. I listened to Ms Anne O Connor on the radio this morning talking about some of the miscommunication in the past weeks around people being brought forward for the third dose of the vaccine. Because different vaccines were given to different people in different age categories it becomes very difficult to manage. Ms O'Connor was speaking about the 80-year-olds, because some 80-year-olds received the Moderna vaccine, some got Pfizer and some got Janssen. Some have underlying conditions and can be brought for the booster after two months and some after three months, with the rest of us after five months. The easiest way to manage this is by the age category. That was Ms O'Connor's explanation this morning. The Senator does make a very valid point however about waning antibodies, particularly in some of our younger cohorts. I am absolutely happy to write a letter to the Minister on that.
Senator McGahon has said, quite rightly, that in the past six or eight months in Ireland we have certainly had a journey - and I will use that phrase with tongue in cheek - towards the use of antigen testing. Some of us in this Chamber have been talking about the benefits of all screening tools as part of Irish life and Irish society in response to the public health crisis we are in. Some of the paternalistic language that was used by our health advisers over the past months has left a lot to be desired. I am very pleased that we now all welcome and recognise that every screening tool has a place in Irish society, to be used correctly and to be used efficiently. I wish Senator McGahon well.
Senator Ward raised the issue of Clonkeen College in Blackrock and the selling of land, which genuinely raises some ethical questions. It is really concerning that a board of management can just be stood down by a religious organisation without any by your leave. I suggest that the Senator write to the Minister for Education. The Minister will be here in the Chamber at 1:30 p,m., but I suggest that a letter to the Minister, copied to the board of management, might perhaps highlight the serious injustice that has been done in that school and to the community.
Senator Sherlock mentioned and welcomed the mica redress scheme. To be fair, nearly everyone has although some technical issues need to be ironed out. I welcome the Minister's initial response yesterday in saying he is open to listening to the concerns that have been raised by the mica group. I hope that sense does prevail before the issue is settled in February. I thank the Senator for raising it here this morning.
A lot of colleagues raised the issue of the EWSS issue, and the continuity required for the hospitality industry. The Senators know who they are, and I will not need to name them all. It was raised individually by some Members yesterday in the Chamber, and collectively by all of us to our party leaders over the past 24 hours.
While no hospitality venue has been closed, the advice to all of us is to be mindful, to be careful and to reduce our sociability. In effect this has had a drastic impact with the cancellation of parties, dinners and hooleys, or whatever you want to call them. Such gatherings are prevalent at this time of the year and are relied upon by the industry to cover the very lean months we know they go through in different periods of the year.
One aspect that was very much highlighted by the Minister for Finance at my own parliamentary party meeting last night is that the second largest investment in the history of the State has been to support people's connectivity with their employers over the past 18 months. It absolutely has worked because we now have more people working in Ireland than we had before the onset of the pandemic. With regard to its shortcomings - and I was at the table when this scheme was devised - it was purely done when we were at level 4 and level 5 restrictions when people could not go to work and we asked them not to go to work. The scheme was to support their incomes. The vast majority of businesses, with the exception of hospitality, that are still availing of the EWSS have not been impinged upon by restrictions for months and months. There are questions to be answered by certain industries that still remain on the EWSS when those industries have been open, are thriving and are looking for workers in those industries. It does beg the question. I absolutely acknowledge that it would be criminal for us to have asked people to change their behaviours, thus impacting on the hospitality industry, and not to continue to support that industry. I have no doubt but that the Government will continue to do that. This is just in answer to all of the questions the Members brought up this morning.
Senator Boylan talked about the anniversary of the establishment of the charity Homeless Period Ireland, and the Senator is right to question why we are still waiting for actions that are in the programme for Government. I would genuinely suggest that it is because it is just us girls and just us women. The people the Senator has spoken about probably have even less of a voice than the women here who do have a voice. I will write a letter to the Minister today asking him what is keeping us and I will come back to the Senator, if that is okay.
Senator Carrigy spoke about the just transition funding and the two very substantial pieces of funding that are waiting to be awarded in the midlands. This was also referenced by Senator Eugene Murphy. I will make inquiries.
Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke about the amateur drama festival that is taking place in Ennis this weekend. I did not even know there was a one act amateur drama festival. I wish them a lot of fun this weekend and I hope it is very much a success.
Senator Craughwell referred to the deficits he sees in the Minister for Defence's budget allocations, and the impact of those on the people who work in our Defence Forces. I acknowledge that.
Senator Conway spoke about the mica redress scheme and asked for it to be extended to Clare. I have no doubt that this will happen in the near future.
Senator Ruane spoke about the Homeless World Cup and the support that she would expect and hope to get from us. The Senator asked for a debate on AI, which is absolutely fascinating. The Senator is absolutely right that we have no idea how, when and why algorithms are used, and what are the outcomes. It might be something on which we could have a conversation and a debate next year.
Senator Wall spoke about referee abuse. When listening to the debate yesterday, I was mindful of the referees who appeared before the Oireachtas committee. We all go to sports matches and we are all aware of the banter when a referee may make a decision that might go against how you feel your team is working. It is hard to think that this kind of banter would lead to the kind of off-pitch behaviour that was described yesterday. it is unimaginable and intolerable. Our referees are right to make such huge complaints and to withdraw their services until we can all acknowledge that inputs, even those of the mammies and daddies on the side of the pitch, have an impact on how people are treated on the pitch and off the pitch. We all must take responsibility to change the culture there.
Senator Warfield spoke about World AIDS Day, in a way that only he can do so eloquently. He reminded us all that illnesses and people's response to them, in an awful lot of cases, can provide opportunities for discrimination, and none less than the opportunity over four or five decades of people who have AIDS and people in the gay community. Apart from remembering the loss, another thing that struck me about Senator Warfield's comments this morning, was that we all should know what our sexual health status is, and not just people in the gay community. Every single one of us. It is a practice that is pleasurable and that we all enjoy on average 89 times per year apparently, according to a report I read last week.Anyway, we will not go there. I do not know how many times we ask women, be they young or middle-aged, and young men how conscious are they of their sexual health. It is an issue we should all be mindful of and we should not just engage in messaging certain communities. I am happy to wear the red badge today.
Senators Boyhan and Wall spoke about the Afghan crisis in support of Senator Chambers, who raised the matter initially. I will try to organise a debate on this because it is not something than can wait. If the crisis that Senator Chambers spoke about is looming in the manner described, after Christmas would be too late for many of those children. I support that and will try to arrange that as quickly as I can.
Senator Kyne referred to the business that has been cancelled in the hospitality industry. I hope an announcement will be made tomorrow following the NPHET meeting this afternoon.
To finish, I acknowledge Senator Eugene Murphy's contribution. I saw on social media last night that the See Her Elected project, which is designed to support women in politics to be elected at local and national level, won an award in Europe yesterday. Dr. Michelle Maher, Tara Farrell and Mairéad O'Shea have been champions of the project, particularly in rural Ireland. Sometimes many of these initiatives are run in the cities of Dublin or Cork, but this initiative has been championed in rural Ireland, where we absolutely need women's input, more so than we might need in our cities. Some women are more sprightly in coming forward in the cities than their counterparts in rural Ireland are. Women have been the backbone of rural Ireland, be that in our farming community, the voluntary sector or in our towns and villages in the context of boards of management, cake sales and all the things we take for granted. They are the quiet, understated support and backbone of Irish society. We need to bring them from the backroom into the boardrooms and rooms like those which we have the pleasure of working in every day. Any opportunity we get to champion the See Her Elected project and Women for Election or, indeed, to just encourage women to come forward to make themselves available to go into public life is very worthwhile.