Thursday, 16 December 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. a1, Report of the Committee of Selection, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 1, motion regarding arrangements for the sitting of the House on Friday, 17 December 2021, to be taken on conclusion of No. a1, without debate; No. 2, Social Welfare Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 1 p.m. and to conclude no later than 3 p.m., with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, Appropriation Bill 2021 [Certified Money Bill] [Dáil] – all Stages to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 5 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall in relation to recommendations include only those set down or accepted by the Government, the opening contribution of the Minister on the debate on Second Stage shall not exceed five minutes, the contribution of group spokespersons shall not exceed five minutes and the Minister shall be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate, Committee and Remaining Stages shall be taken immediately thereafter; No. 4, motion regarding the earlier signature of the Appropriation Bill 2021, to be taken on conclusion of No. 3, without debate; No. 5, statements on the live industry supports, to be taken at 5.15 p.m. and to conclude at 6.15 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed five minutes, the contribution of all Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate.
I support the Order of Business as outlined. I have just received my booster vaccine and I feel relieved and privileged to have it. I wish to put on the record my appreciation of the Minister of State, Deputy English, taking on board the very valid views of all the Members of this House yesterday and withdrawing the countermotion and supporting the motion Senator Alice-Mary Higgins tabled.
I wish everybody a very happy Christmas on behalf of the Fianna Fáil group in the Seanad. We wish all Members health, in particular, over the Christmas period. I thank the Cathaoirleach and his office, the Leader and the Leader's office and, of course, Martin Groves and his office, the ushers, the terrific catering and cleaning staff and all of the backroom people who make sure that we can do our business as best we can. I wish everybody health and a very good new year.
I wish to raise a few items. I have just come from a Joint Committee on Disability Matters meeting with Peter Tyndall. I think it is one of his last appointments as Ombudsman. He spoke about his report entitled Grounded - Unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes. It was disturbing to hear about the report and its findings, in particular in regard to the motorised transport grant and the mobility allowance which the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government did away with in 2013, promising that something would be put in place. It is almost nine years later but nothing has been put in place. There seems to be a paralysis in terms of doing something. People are being denied access to work and to education, the ability to shop for themselves and a social and a sporting life, because sport matters to people with disabilities as much as it does to all of us. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure all Departments to prioritise this for 2022.
I refer also to the Women of Honour group which has spoken recently about the Government's draft terms of reference for an independent review into allegations. They are not happy with them and have sought a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, who has said he will meet them. It is important the victims' voices are to the fore in this process. The review has to be transparent and thorough, and it must have the full confidence of those impacted.
The last thing I will mention is the need for blood. The Irish Blood Transfusion Service is under huge pressure because of people's illnesses and because of the storm. It needs to stockpile 12,000 pints of blood before Christmas. It is wrong that gay men in Ireland are essentially barred from giving blood. A big shout out to everybody who can give blood to do so.
I echo the comments of Senator O'Loughlin and thank everybody here, including the Cathaoirleach, Martin Groves, Bridget Doody, all the staff, the ushers and everyone who works here and in the background in Leinster House for the support they have given me and to Senators and Deputies. I wish everyone a healthy and happy Christmas. We look forward to a more positive 2022 after what has been a difficult year. We must remember those who passed away over the past 12 months. A number of my colleagues have had bereavements over that period, as I had myself last year. I extend our sympathies to them at Christmas, which can be a difficult time.
In regard to the booster jab, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, announced an accelerated plan this morning. I look forward to receiving my booster jab. That is something I would recommend that everybody do. It is important that message comes from these Houses and that we ask people to make sure they get the booster jab to help our healthcare staff in the work they have been doing. I take this opportunity to thank our healthcare staff in all our hospitals, vaccination clinics and testing centres for the long hours and the hard work they have done over the past 12 months.
I am looking forward to the setting up of a joint Oireachtas committee on autism. I think it is on the agenda of the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight later today. This is something I have been working on for probably 15 months, since I came into the House. I am delighted to see that is going to happen. More than 6,200 assessments of needs have been completed in 2021 as part of the progressing disability services, PDS, programme which has been rolled out by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. It is vital that we have a clear pathway for services for all children and that resources are used for the greatest benefit. Assessment of need is a central part of this. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who is an excellent Minister of State in that position. From numerous discussions I have had with her, I can see many positive changes over the next 12 months.
As we come into the Christmas period, or the last ten days of it, I urge people to shop local. Shop in the local town and the local county. The hospitality and entertainment sectors, in particular, have been most affected by the reintroduction of restrictions. Buy a voucher for a show that might be on later in the year, or for a weekend or dinner out. It is important we support those industries at this difficult time.It is important that we support that industry at this difficult time.
I join in and identify with the remarks made by my colleagues about the debt we owe to the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Clerk's office and the other services that keep us going. I wish to express my gratitude for the politeness, courtesy and solid support those offices have given the Members of this House. I speak on my own behalf and that of my colleagues in the Independent Group.
I wish to move an amendment to the Order of Business, which is to take the motion in my name and my colleagues' names, No. 91, motion 2, on the Order Paper immediately after No.1 without debate. The motion states, "That Seanad Éireann notes the publication of the judgement of the Uyghur Tribunal on 9th December, 2021 and accepts its findings.” I have taken the unusual step - I do not do this normally - of circulating the report of the Uighur tribunal, which was established in London and sat for a considerable length of time assessing what has been done to the Uighur people and set out in detail the colossal litany of cultural and physical genocide, enslavement, sterilisation, transportation and dehumanisation that is taking place in Xinjiang province as a result of the activities of the Chinese Communist Party. I wish to draw the House's attention to the report because its findings are shocking. It concludes with a quote from a woman who was in the camp, which reads:
“In the ‘transformation-through-education’ camps, life and death do not mean the same thing as they do elsewhere. A hundred times over I thought, when the footfalls of guards woke us in the night, that our time had come to be executed. When a hand viciously pushed clippers across my skull, and other hands snatched away the tufts of hair that fell on my shoulders, I shut my eyes, blurred with tears, thinking my end was near, that I was being readied for the scaffold, the electric chair, drowning. Death lurked in every corner. When the nurses grabbed my arm to ‘vaccinate’ me, I thought they were poisoning me. In reality, they were sterilising us. That was when I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.”
That is what is going on right now in China, and it is about time that the Members of this House and the members of democratic assemblies right across the world stood up and told the Chinese communist Government that we abhor what it is doing, we stand by its victims and we will not tolerate it.
I echo the Christmas wishes to the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas, including my Senator colleagues, their staff, families and friends. I hope they have a good one.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit my home county of Mayo thanks to an old national school friend from Ballindine, Sabina Trench, who is now the CEO of South West Mayo Development Company. We have known each other since we were four years of age. It was a surreal experience for us to meet through our work years later having taken such different paths since school. It goes to show how life can twist and turn and yet there are these wonderful points at which paths crossed and are aligned, which makes what we do so worthwhile. In Balla, I had the opportunity to hear about the supports for local food producers such as Velvet Cloud, Achill Island Sea Salt, and Mescan Brewery. This is something about which I am passionate, and I echo the call to support people by shopping local this Christmas. It was lovely to see the community kitchen for new food business start-ups where I was able to sample some delicious Nollaig nog, the Irish version of eggnog, which is produced locally and is, apparently, available in some retailers across the country, so look out for that.
I also visited the Mayfield Lake greenway in Claremorris, a LEADER funded project and a collaboration between Mayo County Council, the Forest Service, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Claremorris Chamber of Commerce and Claremorris wildlife club. It is a collaborative initiative that has brought the community together for this wonderful purpose. The 3 km walkway is around Mayfield Lake and serves as a sister to the 5 km walkway around Clare Lake, literally, across the road.
The highlight of my visit to Mayo was to Oliver and Anna Dixon's organic farm near Claremorris. This farm is extra special because it takes part in social farming, an initiative that offers people who are socially, physically, mentally or intellectually disadvantaged the opportunity to spend time on a family farm in a healthy, supportive and inclusive environment. There I met Eric Kilcourse from Ballyhaunis and Padraig Prendergast from Kilkelly who, through a Western Care Mayo initiative, have been coming to this farm in recent years. It was heart-warming to see the relationship between Eric and Padraig and the farm owners Oliver and Anna. While I was there, I helped fork in the silage to the cattle, and they showed me the two Christmas wreaths they made earlier that day with Anna, an accomplished artist.
A variety of farm types can and do engage in social farming. It provides these people with the opportunity to do ordinary things in ordinary places. My Department provides significant supports to these worthwhile initiatives. In September, we announced funding of €377,000 to support social farming models, an area for which I would like to see further supports. Social farming is an outcome focused support placement and to date has supported nearly 6,500 placement days for about 800 participants on nearly 80 social farms across the country, including two in my constituency of Laois-Offaly which I hope to visit in the new year. I encourage my senatorial colleagues to do likewise. They should find a farm near to them and arrange a visit. They will not be disappointed. If my visit was anything to go by, they will leave feeling inspired and, frankly, in awe of the wonder that is there in our rural communities.
I congratulate Senator O'Loughlin on getting her booster vaccine this morning and I say "Fair play" to her. I hope she does not feel the effects of it too much. My brother texted me the other day when he got his booster to say that he was feeling a bit ropy afterwards, but he was glad to get it. I wish the Senator well. I have seen quite a few photographs online of a walk-in clinic at the community centre in my parish in the Short Strand. There was a queue along the street with people going in to get their booster. I wished I was home when I saw that so I could get it, but I look forward to getting my booster next week. Like others have done, I thank and commend those in the healthcare sector, in the community and voluntary sectors, in the GAA, in the churches, in many sectors of Irish life and, indeed, in the Defence Forces and elsewhere, who are assisting the roll-out of the booster vaccine and have assisted in the vaccine programme throughout the pandemic.
I note last night's debate and thank and commend Senator Higgins on her motion on the TRIPS waiver and by ensuring it was passed. It was the right thing for the Government to do and I acknowledge and thank those Government Senators who stood strong last night and did the right thing. As I said during yesterday's debate, none of us is truly vaccinated until everyone is vaccinated, and that was the core sentiment and intend behind the motion, which I was happy and honoured to co-sign. I hope the Government listens and, more important, I hope it acts.
I join with colleagues agus guím Nollaig mhór mhaith ar achan duine san Oireachtas, ar an gCathaoirleach agus ar a oifig, ar Martin Groves, Bridget Doody agus achan duine in Oifig an tSeanaid, Oifig an Cheannaire, achan duine a oibríonn go díon agus go crua gach aon bhliain ach go háirithe le linn na paindéime agus an méid a bhí orainn go léir déileáil leis i mbliana agus anuraidh. I join in the sentiment of Christmas greetings to colleagues across the Chamber and these Houses and all staff of the Oireachtas who always work diligently and very hard, as the Cathaoirleach knows, but this has been a trying year for us all. I hope they get a good rest and enjoy it – I am not looking at Martin Groves in particular. I hope we all do. I wish everyone a happy Christmas and Nollaig shona and all the best. Hopefully 2022 will be a much better year for us all.
I have my full Christmas regalia on today. I want to reflect on the news that Cappagh Kids is not going to receive additional funding for orthopaedic paediatric care in 2022. I think we can all agree this is devastating news for patients, parents and staff who are trying hard to care for children with scoliosis. It is hard for me and for the children and carers affected to understand why cost effective, sustainable healthcare is not being considered. Children are waiting for too long in severe pain for surgery. Letting care go for too long compromises the best outcomes for patients. These patients are children and care for children cannot wait.
I want to quote the original Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter. She tweeted recently that "You don't have to be trans to understand the importance of respecting trans people and affirming their identities." A study of over 9,000 young trans people, one of the biggest studies that has ever been done of young trans people, shows that access to affirming medical care reduces the rate of suicide and depression by 40%. Trans people being able to access the care they need when they need it literally saves their lives. We are so far from this being a reality in Ireland. Despite the fact that we arguably have progressive laws in this area, we have very poor access to the care, including medical care, that trans people need. I hope that for 2022, we can move to a place where care, compassion and accessible healthcare for our trans family is a reality and that some of the hateful rhetoric that has been flying around over the past couple of years is left in the bin.
One of my favourite topics as a spokesperson on student matters is the Cassells report. We are now aeons away from funding or getting a decision on how we are going to fund further and higher education. I am sure it is trite to say that all I want for Christmas is a publicly funded further and higher education system but we have to get ourselves together in 2022. Our further and higher education sector is creaking at the seams with precarious work practices and people not being able to access or afford it. For years we have been promised there is going to be a solution. I hope that in 2022 we can see a solution. I hope it will be publicly funded. For my last contribution this year, I want to emphasise that we must really stick a pin in the funding of further and higher education and find a solution for it in 2022.
I thank all the staff in Leinster House, the office of the Cathaoirleach, the canteen staff, cleaning staff, and the Debates Office staff who deal with my truly chaotic inability to stick to a script. I thank all the staff in Leinster House for all they do in keeping this place running and open and all of us safe. I wish them all a very happy Christmas and new year.
The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, who has left us now, mentioned forking the silage on her nice little trip down to Mayo. A lot of heads popped up from the phones and looked over with surprise. She is well known for forking out the silage on her own farm in Offaly. She is no stranger to it.
Like other Senators I wish to express my good wishes to all the staff of this House who are excellent people. I thank the ushers, cleaners and everybody associated, those in the Library and Research Service, the Cathaoirleach and his staff, particularly Grace Coyle who happens to be a neighbour of mine. We wish to express our thanks to everyone, as Senator O'Loughlin has done earlier.
It has been a really trying year for everybody. We should reflect today on giving a little bit of acknowledgement to the GPs, HSE staff, nurses and anybody who has been involved with the vaccination campaign and now the booster campaign. We should also reserve a place for the people of Ireland who, over very trying times in the past two years, have acted with respect and dignity. It has been hard. Some have seen their business hit. Some are not sure about vaccinations. In general people have stuck with the Government and with the medical advice. I am not going to deny that it has been really tough at times to accept it. We have to accept it because we are fighting a pandemic and we can see it is rising again. It is really important to remember the people of Ireland and always to acknowledge and listen to what they are saying. Without them, we could not have got as far as we have. In general, while we have our difficulties, we are not in a bad space.
I wish my colleagues a happy Christmas. It is really a pleasure to be dealing with them. Let us all have a happy and peaceful Christmas.
I acknowledge the Cathaoirleach and wish him a very happy Christmas. I thank the Clerk and his team for the great work they do, and all the great people in Leinster House who do so much for us. I also thank all our colleagues across the House. Since we resumed meeting in person we have got to know each other a lot better. The work we do here is absolutely fantastic.
It is going to be a difficult Christmas because Covid-19 is still with us. We all have to be cognisant of the fact that we are still living in a pandemic. The booster programme is going very well but I am quite concerned about those who got the Janssen vaccine. It was a single-dose vaccine. A lot of people who got it are in direct provision, are members of the Travelling community or are homeless. They are the most vulnerable in our society. An extra effort needs to be made to ensure that those people get their booster without any delay. The third shot is seen as giving us extra immunity but if someone only got the Janssen vaccine they only got one injection. We need to make a really special effort to ensure that the people who received the Janssen vaccine get their booster as quickly as possible. I do not know how that can happen but I have no doubt that the HSE has the mechanisms to make it happen. I call on the HSE to ensure that all those who received a Janssen jab get their booster vaccine this side of Christmas. It will provide the reassurance, confidence and protection that is needed.
I wish everybody a happy and a very safe Christmas. We will all be back here in the new year and hopefully 2022 will be a better and a healthier year and we will begin to see the back of this pandemic.
As we prepare to break, it is worth thinking of the privilege it is to get to serve Ireland in this manner, getting to debate things of such importance which have an impact on people all over the country. We have to represent everyone. That is why we cannot just have one voice or the voice of one cohort in our Chamber. It cannot be the case that only the opinions of the liberal elite are heard, or the progressives, or any other political label that can be used. We must have a full and honest debate and that is why no perspective should be dismissed out of hand. When legitimate topics of debate are brought to this House they should be seriously considered on their merits and not shrugged off on account of not fitting in to one specific world view.
This has been a very difficult year for many of us in the Chamber. Many of us will have an empty chair this year where our loved ones will not be. That will apply to many families throughout the country. I thank all the people who have supported me in my role, the ushers and porters, the service and catering staff, Martin Groves and his team in the Seanad Office, the Bills Office, the Debates Office and the Library and Research Service. Without them, none of us would be able to do the work that we do. I wish each and every one of them a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year.
I second Minister McDowell's motion this morning. Sorry, I mean Senator McDowell.
In keeping with the spirit of the day, it is important that we acknowledge all of the staff of the House, from Mr. Martin Groves and Ms Bridget Doody in the Seanad Office to the Cathaoirleach and his team, and everyone else who works in Leinster House - those in the print room, the ushers, the catering staff and everyone else who helps us out. In particular, I wish a happy Christmas to all of the Members. This time last year, I was not a Member and it was courtesy of the people in this Chamber and the Lower House that I am back. I thank them all. It was 16 December 2020 that I was last in the city centre before the day of the count on 21 April. People forget just how far we have come even though we are still not where we would like to be. We had a lockdown in early January, we had 2 km and 5 km limits and most people could not visit their grandchildren or grandparents. We are in a different place now and the vaccines have made a considerable difference. Last night, the House did itself some credit in dealing with the TRIPS waiver issue the way it did. I hope that people who have been willing to get vaccinated will get their boosters. I have been looking online constantly since becoming entitled to get one last week. There are long queues but I hope to get mine in the next day or two.
No one has mentioned my next issue on the Order of Business in recent days. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, launched its ten-year strategy on Tuesday. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the RSA's chairperson, Ms Liz O'Donnell, and the chief executive, Mr. Sam Waide, for what they are trying to do. In 1998, we had more than 400 road deaths. We have 1 million more cars on the road now than we had then and, while any death is one too many, the number of road deaths last year was 146. The RSA is trying to cut that figure by half by 2030 and what is termed "Vision Zero" by 2050. There may be less travelling this Christmas than there would otherwise be but I ask people to watch their speed, not to take narcotics or alcohol when driving, to be careful and to mind one another. I hope everyone in the Chamber stays safe and I wish everyone a happy new year.
I join in Senator Keogan's remarks about those who passed away over the past year, in particular due to Covid. Among those who passed away was the Senator's dear mum, who was a highly respected member of our community in Cavan.
I join in wishing a happy Christmas to the Cathaoirleach, his staff, Mr. Groves, Ms Doody, the excellent staff of the Seanad Office, who could not be more helpful or co-operative, all of my colleagues in the Seanad, who have been co-operative with me in my role as Leas-Chathaoirleach, the ushers and every member of the Leinster House staff. We have an excellent community with great camaraderie. Please God, everyone will come back well and refreshed after the holidays.
I had a harrowing experience yesterday. At the request of Libereco, a support organisation for Belarus in this country led by a wonderful man, Mr. Turlough Deenihan, I was on a call to the Samusenka family. Two members of the family, Aliaksei and Kim, are in jail. I have sponsored one and Senator Seery Kearney has sponsored the other. They are in jail in Belarus on trumped up charges without due process or anything having happened since last November. They are now undergoing something of a show trial. I asked about their legal representation - even their lawyers are being threatened. The entire trial process is shocking. They often cannot see relatives. The only time their relatives can glance at them is for a couple of seconds as they pass into the trial area. They are handcuffed at all times. Political prisoners are treated much worse than even well-known criminals. It is an horrendous state of affairs. Some 4,000 people have been jailed in this fashion. Some 4,000 people per year get arrested. There are constant arrests. Belarus has added a new criminal offence of supporting sanctions. If someone publicly supports sanctions, it is now a crime.
The mother of the two men and one of their wives was on the call. The family has been split up. The trauma is shocking. Some of them have to leave the country for Ukraine. I want the Acting Leader, Senator Kyne, to bring this matter to the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the Cabinet's attention. The situation in Belarus is serious, horrendous and savage. I was not the better of being on the call for an hour afterwards. No one would have been. It was shocking. They were emotional and the mother broke down. The situation is horrendous and we have to do something about it.
I wish a happy Christmas to the Cathaoirleach and the staff, in particular Mr. Groves and Ms Doody, for looking after us superbly during a challenging year. Their patience and generosity is appreciated.
It is good that we finished on a good point yesterday with the debate on Senator Higgins's TRIPS waiver motion. Credit is deserved across the Chamber for all of the contributions that were made. I hope the Government acts on the motion. Seeing action and a change in direction is the most important element. I hope that the Government will listen to the House's call.
I was not going to say much more until I got a call this morning from my colleague, Councillor Denis Hynes, in Kilkenny. He told me a harrowing story. There is a Pakistani national - I will not name him - who is homeless on the streets of Kilkenny this evening. He was trafficked into the country to work for a prominent horse industry - I will not name it - where he worked seven days per week for €300. After 15 days of work, he would get one day off. When he broke his ribs in the course of his work, he was treated by a vet. He has put in his papers over being human trafficked. He was afraid to do so for many weeks because his family in Pakistan were being threatened by the traffickers. Of the €300 per week, he was paying half of it back to the traffickers every month for the promise of a visa. He has been through hell. The worst part of it as we approach Christmas is that Kilkenny County Council has refused to do anything for him. The homeless emergency services are saying that, because he does not have a PPS number, they will not help him. He is facing Christmas on the streets of Kilkenny. The lack of humanity is horrendous and shocking.
Will the Acting Leader be kind enough to write a letter to Kilkenny County Council - I will supply him with the details afterwards - and make not a political request, but a humanitarian one to look after this man as we approach Christmas and ensure that he is not left out on the streets after the living hell he has been put through for the past two years? I will be writing to the council as well. This case gives just a small insight into the horrors of human trafficking that have been swept under the carpet in this State for too long. When this story comes to the public's attention, the details will be shocking and have particular reverberations for the horse industry.
I echo Senator Joe O'Reilly's concerns about Belarus and the deteriorating situation there. Ireland has taken a strong position, which I urge be continued. This situation shows that we need to appreciate how fortunate we are to live in a free and democratic country such as ours.
I am always struck by the Christmas story, which is a story of refugees seeking freedom from oppression. Consider what we have achieved this year. The Afghan admission programme has just opened, a regularisation scheme for long-term undocumented migrants has been introduced and we are moving towards abolishing direct provision. The values of which we speak, which can be determined as Christian or liberal values of tolerance and inclusion, are important to those of us in the House. I felt that was part of the debate on the TRIPS waiver motion. We have moved quite a degree in terms of the Christmas message and what we have been delivering but we need to do more.
I echo the sincere thanks to all of my colleagues for their co-operation and work during the year, to the Cathaoirleach, to Mr. Groves, and to the staff and everyone else who works in Leinster House. We need to keep in mind those who will be working over the Christmas period, including healthcare workers and those in local authorities and emergency services.I think also of the RNLI. For those of us who will be out on Christmas Day swims and so on, its members will still be going out. Finally, I want to say a word for the workers in An Post. They have been tremendous during the entire course of the pandemic but during the Christmas period they are particularly busy. I thank all of the postal workers for their work and I wish everybody a very happy Christmas.
I will start by wishing the Cathaoirleach and Mr. Martin Groves, and everyone else who make this place such a special place to be every day, a very happy Christmas.
When I first came into this House, one of the first things I discussed was the concept of commuters and providing tax saver tickets. We are now about 20 months into this pandemic and the National Transport Authority, NTA, has still not produced a three-day tax saver or flexible ticket. I have been engaging with it every month. My friend, Senator Buttimer, accuses me of being dramatic on certain occasions but I would literally get more information out of North Korea than I would out of the NTA. I get one-sentence responses back to say it is trying to introduce this and then to say it has not decided if it needs legislative change or not. I have gone to the Minister for Finance and have got it in writing to say that the NTA does not need legislative change. I have presented this response that would enable the authority to introduce the flexible ticket and that it does not require a change to tax legislation. I then received a one-sentence response back to say it was still looking at it. Getting one and two-line responses is just not good enough in this day and age and it is literally like having to drag the information out of a body.
The other issue we have is that I cannot seek a Commencement debate about this issue because the NTA is not responsible to this House and it is difficult to get those types of responses back from it. The NTA has told me that it is about to be introduced in the first quarter of next year. That will be pretty much two years since this pandemic started and it is simply unacceptable that although we have been back working in the office properly from last September, seven to eight months in we still have people paying for full monthly or annual tickets when they are only commuting to an office setting for two or three days a week. I would greatly appreciate if the Acting Leader and his office could write to the NTA, Hopefully he will be more successful than I have been in trying to get some sort of information from the NTA as to when this will be introduced.
I wish everybody here a Happy Christmas and festive season. Like Senator Hoey, I like seeing the sparkles and everything. I joined in with the earrings and I know that many of the guys here are wearing their festive ties. It is a privilege and an honour to be here and to speak with a strong voice on so many topics but particularly on things that are relevant to where I come from, in Ballinasloe, east Galway and Roscommon. Also I thank Ms Deirdre Chambers who works in our Whip’s office here, who our Acting Leader would know very well and Caroline Lynch in my own team, who are absolute treasures. I look forward to 2022 being a better year. I thank everyone in our towns and villages and each person in every type of job who have done so much to help the country through this crisis. I am thinking of people filling shelves, truck drivers bringing supplies, people doing overtime in so many companies, particularly in the area of medical technology.
I wish to mention how Medtronic ramped up ventilator production in Galway and took on hundreds of people and completed incredible feats. They did 24-7 shifts and increased their production levels five times over. That was to save lives across the world and provide ventilators. Its CEO, Geoff Martha, recently received the Ireland-US Council's global achievement award for 2021 and he said that medical technology and healthcare services, together with third level colleges and local groups in Galway joined forces in an unprecedented way at the height of the pandemic. I want to acknowledge that, which is completely incredible.
I also want to acknowledge our children wearing masks in schools and leading the way in keeping our families safe, and our students and young people whose lives have changed so much. There has been an incredible change in connection, isolation and loneliness for so many.
Finally, I want to ask people, where I have no shopping done and I do not know about anybody else here, but when people are going out shopping I ask them to think about their local shops. They should shop local and look for local. They have spent so much in getting supplies in for Christmas and have done so much over the past year to stay open. There are books, jewellery, toys, house furnishings and even, as the Minister of State, Senator Hackett has said there, the organic farm shops, and so on. We should think about how we can support the people in one’s own community. It means so much coming up to Christmas. Nollaig Shona Daoibh go léir.
I wish to follow on the sentiments of all Members today and wish the Cathaoirleach and everyone here a very happy Christmas and to thank him, the Leas-Chathaoirleach, Martin Groves and Brigid Doody and every staff member who works for the Seanad and in the Oireachtas for the work that they do and the contribution that they all make in making the work we do as good as possible.
As it is a case of being the Acting Leader for the third day in a row, is it still "acting" any more this week? Can the Acting Leader arrange that we have a debate in the new year at some point with the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, on cybercrime and cyberbullying? As the House will be aware, the Minister herself made huge strides earlier in the year on Coco's Law and making it illegal to distribute intimate images of people on social media and online, which has been very beneficial. The Acting Leader is aware that parents of children have great concerns, especially children of a vulnerable age, when they are on social media and online in respect of cyberbullying. Commitments have been given in respect of a commissioner to deal with this issue. Many people have been in touch with me in Tipperary looking for updates as to when that will happen in respect of the Government’s commitment during its term of office to tackle cyberbullying. A debate in this Chamber with the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, in the new year would be very helpful if that was possible.
Today, 38 years ago, two brave Irish men died in the line of duty serving and protecting us. We remember trainee Garda Gary Sheehan and Private Patrick Kelly and we thank them and their families for their service. It behoves all of us who aspire to and want to have a united Ireland that we stand up and represent all of our people. On this most sacred day for those families, it is incumbent on members of the Sinn Féin Party here today to condemn the video that Gerry Adams performed on in the past number of days. It does nothing to achieve the goal of all of us who want to have a united Ireland.
We remember also a man who died on this day in 1971, the late General Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff of the Volunteers in the 1916 Rising. Look at the legacy that he left. We remember him and thank him today for his service.
Our Covid-19 vaccine programme is now ranked eighth in the world. We thank the men and women of our health service, together with the workers in the vaccination centres, our pharmacists and doctors.
I ask the Acting Leader to arrange a debate in the new year again on cybersecurity. There has been an attack today on the Coombe hospital. This is a worrying development again so soon after the attack that brought the whole HSE to a halt. It is incumbent upon us to have that debate.
On a more positive note, I wish the Cathaoirleach, all the Members of the House and the staff of Leinster House a very happy Christmas and, as Senator Conway has said, a safe one.
I will start by wishing everyone here, all our colleagues in this House and in the other House, the Acting Leader, the Cathaoirleach and his office, Mr. Martin Groves and his office and all of the staff from the ushers to the people working in the various different sections throughout the building, a very happy and safe Christmas.
The main issue I wish to raise today is a mistake made during the week whereby pharmacists received an email from the HSE stating they could start giving out vaccines boosters to people from the age of 16 upwards who are in the cohort that has been approved, and to pregnant women and people in their 40s. Many people made their appointments in the pharmacies. Now it has been said that that was a mistake and that they cannot do this. We are trying to get the boosters into people as quickly as possible. I know that only 400 pharmacies were doing it initially and there are now over 700. This is a way of getting boosters into people as quickly as possible. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, is meeting today and there are concerns about the Omicron variant. We should allow the pharmacies to give these vaccines to people because I got my booster vaccine in a walk-in pharmacy last week and it was run very efficiently.People moved through it very quickly. I compliment all the staff involved in giving out vaccines.
Last but not least, Christmas is coming. Like Senator Dolan, I have not done my Christmas shopping but I encourage everybody to buy local and support local because the small businesses in our local communities have suffered so much and it is really important to support these businesses across all sectors.
I join with others in wishing everybody a happy Christmas. Obviously, it is a happy time of year for many but, unfortunately, a sad time for others. It is appropriate to mark the death last Sunday morning of Frank Callanan SC, who was a former colleague and friend of mine. We often like to say in Ireland that somebody is a gentleman and a scholar and that statement could not be truer of Frank Callanan. He was tremendously generous with his expertise, experience and time. When I worked in the office of Enda Kenny as legal adviser, Frank was an unending source of information, support and encouragement. He was also a scholar who wrote extensively. He edited a sesquicentennial history of the Literary and Historical Society in UCD, wrote about Charles Stewart Parnell and was a Joycean expert. He was somebody who contributed at all levels. His death tragically followed that of his father on Friday. He was preparing for his father's funeral when he died. It is appropriate to acknowledge and remember somebody who contributed so much and was such a lovely, gentle and considered person, as his funeral takes place tomorrow.
I join with colleagues in wishing everybody in the Houses and all of the people who kept this country working over what has been the most difficult two years a very happy Christmas. I am particularly mindful of those who will be on duty over Christmas, such as members of the Defence Forces, the fire service and the ambulance service and hospital staff. I know that friends working in hospitals are really jaded and are suffering severe exhaustion after two years of constant working with PPE and Covid and in some cases, dealing with very difficult patients because they are being moved back in queues because hospitals must deal with the current crisis. I am mindful of them today and I think we should send our good wishes to them.
Where vaccine and boosters are concerned, I appeal those who email me on a regular basis telling me all the bad things about vaccines to give it up for God's sake. If they do not want the vaccine, that is fine but do not try to turn me and other people. Let me have my vaccine. I am delighted I got the booster. I queued up for three and a half hours and would queue for 13 hours if I had to. I want to be protected and I want my family to be protected. Four members on one side of my family currently have Covid - a four-year-old, a six-year-old and their parents. It is not a nice experience but thankfully they had the vaccine and it is not as severe as it might have been. If you do not want the vaccine, that is fine. Do me two favours. One, do not contact me to tell me I should not have it and two, do not occupy a hospital bed I may need at some stage in the future because you decided not to have the vaccine. I thank Cathaoirleach for being kind enough to give us speaking time every now and then.
I thank all the Senators for their co-operation and thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach, all the Whips and the leaders of all the groups for their assistance. I thank all the staff in Leinster House, including the ushers, catering staff and in particular the cleaners, who keep us safe in this challenging time. I thank the Seanad staff, namely, Martin Groves, Bridget Doody, Carol Judge, Carmel Considine, Ilinca Popa, Eden McLaughlin, Aisling Hart and Amanda Carney in my office, who do so much great work behind the scenes on our behalf. I also thank Eleanor Lanigan and Grace Coyle in my office for all their hard work. To all those who have suffered bereavement this year, obviously, Christmas can be a very trying time when we think of the loved ones who are gone. At this time of the year, we think of and pray for them. I wish everyone a very happy and safe Christmas.
The most common sentiment was the wishing of Christmas greetings to everybody and thanks to all staff. On behalf of the Leader and Deputy Leader, I concur with all the sentiments expressed. I thank the Cathaoirleach, the Cathaoirleach's office, Martin Groves and the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas such as the ushers, catering staff and cleaners. I also thank staff from all the political parties and groupings such as support staff, secretarial assistants and parliamentary assistants, Deirdre Chambers in the Whip's office and all the teams in policy offices within the political parties.
Senators O'Loughlin, Ó Donnghaile and Gavan spoke about the TRIPS waiver. I welcome the decision by the Minister of State, Deputy English, to support the motion on it yesterday. There was no intent to divide the House. He put Government issues and policy on that on the record. It is important that the House was not divided.
Senator O'Loughlin spoke about working as part of the Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters regarding personal transport schemes and the mobility allowance. These are very important schemes that were cancelled a number of years ago. The fact that they have not been brought back shows that it is not an easy problem to solve. I know the Ombudsman has advised that both schemes need to be revised to make them compliant under the Equal Status Acts as they were regarded as being discriminatory at the time, which is why they were halted. I hope we can get that sorted.
The Senator also mentioned the Women of Honour group. The Minister for Defence has agreed to a meeting and I hope that takes place soon. The Senator also mentioned the very important work of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. She pointed out some individuals who are not allowed to donate blood but those who can donate should do so.
Senator Carrigy spoke about the establishment of the Oireachtas committee on autism, which will come before the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight today. There will be motion in the House afterwards. I compliment the Senator on his advocacy in getting that committee established. I am sure it will do very important work, once established. Senator Carrigy along with Senators Dolan and Maria Byrne spoke about the hospitality and entertainment industry and the advice to shop local and so say all of us in this very important period for the economy and businesses up and down the country.
Senator McDowell made a passionate contribution about the motion on the Uighur people. The motion states that Seanad Éireann notes the publication of the judgment of the Uyghur Tribunal on 9 December 2021 and accepts its findings. We should have a debate on that early in the new year. I have not seen the report. Perhaps it would be more advisable to have a full debate on it and accept it after that. I have not seen the tribunal's findings, which I am sure are fine, and am not sure if other Members have seen or noted them. Perhaps we could put that on the schedule for debate early in the new year so we can have a fuller thrashing out of that and arrive at a common position.
Senators Joe O'Reilly and Malcolm Byrne spoke about the situation in Belarus. The Leas-Chathaoirleach was particularly moved by the call he had. I am obviously not aware of the full details but I certainly concur with Senator Byrne. It makes us prouder to live in this country but with that comes the responsibility to assist those who are not as fortunate.
The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, spoke about her trip to Mayo, all the good work taking place there and across all of rural Ireland and the work of Sabina Trench, who I met at the opening of the Kilmainham playground and is CEO of South West Mayo Development Company. Senator Hackett spoke about the social farming model, which is hugely important for many.
Senators Ó Donnghaile, Conway, Buttimer, Maria Byrne and Craughwell spoke about the booster vaccine roll-out. The Minister for Health has announced some changes there, including the extension of the opening hours of vaccination centres from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week operating both walk-in and appointment-based clinics. We have been increasing capacity in vaccination centres and opening new ones, including Richmond Barracks and the RDS in Dublin and a further centre opening in Cork city in early January. We will be expanding GP practice participation from 75% to full participation nationwide and increasing the number of pharmacies participating in the programme to 700 from this week.Senator Byrne talked about the mixed messages on pharmacies. Hopefully, that advice will be followed from this week. I refer to the widening of the programme to those age 40 and over from the week commencing 27 December. There have been changes on the 15-minute wait period and other changes are being looked at as well.
Senator Hoey talked about the ongoing issues with children awaiting scoliosis treatment. As members of the health committee, both of us met with professionals working in that sector a number of weeks ago. They gave solutions, or certainly advice, as to how things can be improved. It is incumbent on Government to take those issues up and we need to keep the pressure on. She also talked about respect for transgender individuals. Much important legislative work has done, led by her party and by the former Minister of State, Kevin Humphreys, and supported by Fine Gael in the 2011-2016 Government.
Senator Hoey talked about the Cassells report. It has been a long time around the Houses and it is one of those issues that Governments have not been able to grasp, that is, proper and sustainable funding of the third level sector. Perhaps we will arrange a debate in the new year on that.
Senator Keogan talked about the empty chairs at tables at Christmas. It is a difficult time for anybody to lose family. That is why we continue to advocate the health requirements we have advocated, in particular in this pandemic, including getting the vaccine, having vaccine certificates, the use of face masks and social distancing.
Senator Horkan called for a debate on the road safety strategy, which Senator Buttimer raised that during the week. I am sure the legislation will be going through pre-legislative scrutiny, PLS, if it has not already done so, in the transport committee. It is important to recognise the positive initiatives that have taken place to reduce the number of road deaths over the years. As I said last week, road projects and the realignment of roads have the most important benefit of saving lives because they are works done to make roads safer. New roads or road realignments are about savings lives and preventing and reducing traffic accidents and making junctions safer and so on.
Senator Gavan raised the case of an individual trafficked in Pakistan. If he provides details, I will ask the office to write to Kilkenny County Council. There may be more media scrutiny of that particular case over the coming days or weeks.
On Senator McGahon's contribution, I will write to the National Transport Authority, NTA. I am not sure if the NTA has come into the transport committee to discuss matters like these. If it was to be invited in, I am sure the Chair of that committee would allow him to ask the questions he wishes to ask.
Senator Dolan talked about the work of Medtronic in Galway and the ramping up of ventilator production and the award to be given to CEO, Geoff Martha. It was great to see him receive the award from the Taoiseach recently.
Senators Ahearn and Buttimer talked about the issue of cybercrime, cyberbullying and cybersecurity. I understand that the pre-legislative scrutiny report on the online safety and media regulation Bill was submitted in early November and that a Bill on those matters is expected in 2022.
Senator Ward made a lovely tribute to Mr. Frank Callanan. I did not know him personally, but I have heard of him by reputation as a brilliant legal mind and someone who impacted so much on people's lives. I am sure he would have had a bright future ahead of him in terms of his career. It is a tragedy, and so close to the death of his father. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
Senator Craughwell talked about the healthcare staff. Many front-line workers have been under huge pressure over the last number of years and they are all sick and tired of it. We hope this will be the last winter we will so worried about Covid and Covid viruses, but we just do not know. We certainly hope it is. I hope 2022 allows us to get back to the things we used to talk about and the things that we used to do and to some more normality in our lives.
I heard what the Acting Leader about having the matter debated. I do not want, in any sense, to diminish the capacity of people to contribute on the Uighur subject. If the acting Leader is signalling that time will be made available in Government time to consider this report in the new year, I would be prepared not to put it to a vote today and divide the House.
I was just looking at the particular paragraph of No. 91, motion 2, and at the other motion on Mr. Richard O'Halloran. It is nine months since I stood up in this House and asked on behalf of the movers of that motion for the Government to do something for this man. He is three years away from his wife and children. He is being imprisoned by a vicious regime in China in respect of a transaction that took place before he even joined the company, which it is complaining about. Nothing has been done to get him back but it is about time it was. I am sorry; I said nothing has been done but I know the Department of Foreign Affairs has been moving behind the scenes.
We have to stand up to this wolf diplomacy. We have to say to the Chinese, "Enough." An Irish person cannot be interned in Beijing for three years because China has some dispute with his employer. It is enough. We have taken too much. I will withdraw the amendment on the understanding that the acting Leader will provide time to read this report. As I said, I gave it to every Member of the House today, and it is a shocking, disgusting read. I do not expect anyone to read it before Christmas, but please read it in the days after Christmas and come back to this House and give Beijing the torpedo it deserves from an Irish democratic assembly.
I withdraw the amendment on that basis.