Wednesday, 19 January 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the Technological Universities Act 2018 (Section 36) (Appointed Day) Order 2022, referral to committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; and No. 2, motion regarding the report of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science entitled The Impact of COVID-19 on Primary and Secondary Education, to be taken at 5.30 p.m., the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours and in accordance with Standing Order 78, the Chairperson of the committee, being a Member of Dáil Éireann or another Member of Dáil Eireann nominated in his or her stead, may attend and speak to the motion and may take a seat on the floor of the Seanad Chamber.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and I support the Order of Business, as outlined by the Deputy Leader. I would like to wish everybody a very happy new year and say how pleased I am that we have had the formal announcement today that we will have a St. Brigid’s bank holiday, starting in 2023. We know, of course, that it will be 18 March this year which will be a day of commemoration, sadly, of all of the lives lost during the Covid-19 period. It is a great recognition for our matron saint of this country. Brigid’s values, 1,500 years later, are strong values of equality. She was the very first feminist in this country and cared deeply for those who were downtrodden by society. She looked after both women and men equally and cared deeply for the environment, for the farming community and for the animal kingdom.
Of course all of us in Kildare have a special relationship with Brigid. I was reminded just before I came in that when I became mayor of our county, the first thing that I did was to put a bog oak St. Brigid’s cross in the chamber, where it still is and of which I am very proud. This is deeply appreciated by the people Kildare and, I have no doubt, by the people of Ireland.It is particularly about remembering all those healthcare workers and others who put their lives on the line to ensure the rest of us could be safe. I thank the Taoiseach and the Cabinet for listening.
In speaking about Kildare, I also raise the Commission on the Defence Forces. We in Kildare do not, of course, have the monopoly on the Defence Forces but the headquarters are in the county. The commission's report is due in the next few weeks. I really hope it has teeth and it will finally address the recruitment and retention problem because nothing else has to date. Again, members of the Defence Forces were very much at the forefront in helping us deal with the pandemic. Currently, 700 new recruits are needed but there are no available instructors to teach the recruits. As a result, the recruitment cannot happen. It is not good enough and this position must change.
I also raise the question of insurance. We all know how difficult it is to get and repay a mortgage, and these costs add up. Insurance is a very big part of that cost. I was contacted yesterday by a young couple who finally bought their house and are due to get married. They did everything properly and evaluated their house before purchase so there could be no issue with it. Unfortunately, there was storm damage to the roof and they put in a claim to Aviva insurance, which is a very reputable company. They have now been told it is not the insurance company's problem and this couple will have to rectify it by themselves. They will have to pay another €6,000 on top of already excessive insurance and mortgage payments. We must have a debate on insurance in the House so we can ensure the insurance sector is adequate and fit for purpose.
I join with everybody who has expressed their sympathy to the Murphy family. I believe some Senators did so earlier on the Commencement. I also express sympathy to all who have lost family in tragic circumstances. I cannot begin to imagine what the past weeks have been like for them and I continue to urge everyone to respect their privacy at this time. There have been some important conversations in this country over the past few days, some of which have been helpful, insightful and constructive, although others were less so. What is obvious to all is we must each take responsibility for the way we act, talk and think. We must do all we can to make this country a safe place for women and children.
As we talked about this over the past few days, I have thought about how we would not know anything about this tragedy if it had not been reported. I then thought about everything that goes unreported and the stories of hurt, pain and abuse behind closed doors, which happens all over the country. I have spoken many times in this House about the problem of abuse and violence, whether it is domestic, gender-based, against children or in any other form. The message must go out, loud and clear, that if we see something, we must say something. National services in the form of Women's Aid, Safe Ireland and many others are there to help because nobody should have to live in fear.
Nevertheless, we can say that 2021 was a year of fear. It was characterised by headline after headline from the media and announcement after announcement from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and the Government of worst-case scenarios. There was modelling and subsequent delivery of massively inflated death tolls and hospitalisation numbers. There were incessant doomsday predictions being given non-stop airtime by major broadcasters. Even as early data came from South Africa and preliminary medical papers were made publicly available by the University of Hong Kong on the key differences of the Omicron variant, NPHET insisted on the reintroduction of restrictions over the Christmas period, which were to be lifted, in the words of one Minister, "if our worst fears do not come to pass". This is now certainly the case and our restrictions should be rolled back as soon as possible. Businesses must be allowed to reopen fully and the hospitality industry must be returned to full operational hours. The domestic use of Covid-19 certificates must be abolished.
For the past two years we have been asking the Government for a road out of this pandemic. Now one has opened and the Government should at least have the common sense to take it.
I wish everyone, including the Deputy Leader, a happy new year.
Several things have happened in the past few weeks and months. It is so difficult to encapsulate it all in three minutes. I know that we will have lots of opportunities. I thank the Leader and Deputy Leader for making those opportunities available to discuss the death of Ashling Murphy in greater detail than I can go into now. There is an awful lot to be said about the society that we live in. We must really give that the time and invite in the appropriate Minister. I know the Deputy Leader is doing that and I am grateful for that.
I would also like to bring up identity-based bullying in our schools. Consent is something that we speak about an awful lot and the proper kind of educational reforms that are required around consent. Watching the really difficult video by the parents of Eden Heaslip on the extent of the bullying he underwent, leading to him eventually deciding that suicide was the only option for him, really brought home the issues that children across our society are facing.
I was on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community, as was Senator Moynihan. It was chaired by Senator Flynn. It really brought home to me the lives that children are leading in their homes. There is an awful lot we need to do on accommodation. When it comes to the kind of experiences they have in their school life, however, there is almost no place to go that is comfortable and where people are shown respect. The councils are not showing respect when it comes to proper accommodation. In our schools, 27% of Traveller parents say that their children experience identity-based bullying.
I note the Yellow Flag programme. It has real difficulty in getting funding. It relies on funding from local authorities, provided on a case-by-case basis depending on whether the local authority has funds in the pot and whether it is willing to support it. Most of the education is in schools where there are a lot of people coming from diverse backgrounds. We need to see it being rolled out across the board in all schools if we are really to tackle the issues of identity-based violence and bullying. Some 150 schools are turned away each year from this programme because the funding is not there. I would love if we could write to the Minister for Education suggesting that this programme is funded and supported on a national level. That is what is required. We know all of the problems. We are going about finding the solutions. This is one part of that.
I echo the words of sympathy to Ashling Murphy's family, friends, community and pupils. I do not think anyone could fail to be moved, over a series of really traumatic days, watching through the media the image of Ashling's students forming a guard of honour at her funeral procession. I am also very conscious of the fact that there is a family grieving and that we have responsibilities in terms of what we say. That is weighted against the other responsibilities colleagues have talked about in terms of political and societal leadership and change.
Women friends, relatives and comrades of mine, and women more broadly in society, are asking men to do particular things in the context of what has happened. We need to create the space in the Seanad where we hear from our women colleagues. We also have the opportunity as men to speak and hopefully to show the kind of responsible leadership that is being asked of us in challenging violence against women. Violence against women is endemic and for many years has been systemic in our society and in Irish life. It is something that we need to work on hard to bring to an end.
Like Senator O'Loughlin, I note the announcement from Government of the payment for healthcare workers. We probably need a more comprehensive input from Government and it would be useful if we could have statements detailing which healthcare workers will qualify for this payment. It is also a timely reminder that we need to invest further in our health services. We need to meet the needs of workers across that sector, Covid or no Covid.Ultimately, what we need is an Irish national health service. We need to have statements on healthcare moving forward, beyond the context of Covid.
Finally, I wish to raise a matter that I hope to raise in a more comprehensive fashion at the earliest opportunity, namely, the latest report of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, which by and large, worryingly, has gone without much political or media comment in this State. The report examined 19 murders, including those of elected representatives in this jurisdiction, who were targeted and assassinated by the Ulster Defence Association, UDA, with the active assistance of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, RUC. The ombudsman said that she was numbed by the level and the extent of collusion involved. We know that the report, as serious and comprehensive as it is, is but a snapshot of a wider malign policy that was at play. Given the particular ramifications for political leaders in this State, I think it warrants statements. I appreciate we recently had statements on legacy issues which were challenging and ultimately worthwhile. This report gives us a particular snapshot of the issue and warrants discussion.
Like others, I wish to express my sympathies on the murder of Ashling Murphy. For many women, it is difficult to open a newspaper or watch television any day and not see an act of violence against them. We rationalise those things to psychologically protect ourselves. Every once in a while, a murder happens and it strikes a chord with everybody. We ask how we can possibly protect ourselves. Ashling Murphy was going for a run in the daylight at 4 p.m. in her home town, in what seemed like a safe space. When something like that happens, we all feel the foundations of what we consider to be safety and build up around ourselves, and the strategies that we have. Every time a woman leaves the house, she will risk assess. I have really enjoyed being able to come to work on the bike for the past few weeks, but as soon as we move to late sittings, I will switch back to using the car. That is a conscious decision that I make every day when I come in. I decide how I am going to get myself to places safely. We all do that.
I wish mention the Mongolian national, Urantsetseg Tserendorj. In January 2021, she was walking home from her cleaning job in Google, was attacked and died in the Mater Hospital two weeks later. I remember being very shaken at the time by that murder. I am from the inner city and I walk around the area a lot. It was around the same time that the murder of Sarah Everard happened in the UK. It was a senseless act. A woman was walking home from a job, then lost her life two weeks later.
I also wish to raise the issue of the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area that the National Transport Authority, NTA, has been consulting on. I have raised the issue previously in the House. While it is very much welcome, one glaring omission from the DART+ proposals is a station at Kylemore. There is also an issue with the extension of BusConnects. It comes back to safety. There are a number of children who are coming from Chapelizod and getting the bus to Lucan. They now do not have steps to be able to get to the bus safely. There is no proposed station at Kylemore. It beggars belief for me that we can have massive projects like BusConnects and DART Dublin south-west, yet the dots are not connected when it comes to putting in place that transport infrastructure for communities. Currently, the NTA is negotiating with residents in lower Ballyfermot on getting access to the back of their properties to facilitate the DART extension. That is absolutely fine. However, there is no joined-up thinking about having a station in that big area in south-west Dublin, which is one of the most economically disadvantaged in the country. The next station is in Maynooth.I will continue to raise this issue on the Order of Business until the NTA and Minister begin to listen regarding the need to provide services for the huge population in west Dublin. I refer to putting in place essential public transport infrastructure and creating safe spaces to enable people to use public transport, instead of having to over-rely on private cars.
It is brilliant to be back from maternity leave. I thank all Senators, and especially Senator Clifford-Lee, for their support. I also thank the members of my Civil Engagement Group for all their support as well during the past four months.
Last week, I was struck by comments made by the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, when she was talking to Miriam O'Callaghan on "Prime Time". She said primary and secondary schools have education programmes dealing with consent around sexual violence and the root causes of rape. I met with representatives of the Donegal Rape Crisis Centre last week. I stress that it has little to no funds available now. The centre has no funds to deliver an education programme to 200 students. Last year, it was possible for the centre to deliver the programme to more than 100 students. This year, though, the organisation does not have, as my father would say, a shilling in its account to enable it to deliver this great training programme to the young students. Schools are crying out for the programme, so I suggest that we write a letter to the Minister for Education to ask if it would be possible to support the Donegal Rape Crisis Centre in delivering this vital training to the young people of the county.
I would also like to echo Senator Pauline O'Reilly's call for funding for the Yellow Flag programme. It is a critical programme to have operating in our education system. Prevention is better than intervention. We must educate our young people to understand that racism, discrimination and the bullying of other children because they are different and not the same as others in the class is inappropriate. The only way we can do that is through initiatives such as the Yellow Flag programme. I have worked with the Irish Traveller Movement, ITM, and the Yellow Flag programme for years. It works, and I call for every school in the country to have access to the programme, just as they do to the Green Flag programme.
I also wish to raise the critical issue of Traveller mental health. Again, the figures in this regard are not just figures; they represent the experience of people's lives. One in every 11 deaths in the Traveller community is caused by suicide. Men in the Traveller community are seven times more likely to die by suicide than men in the general population, while women in the Traveller community are six times more likely to die by suicide than women in the general population. We have a mental health crisis in our community. It is tough for people to hear about this issue, but it is even tougher for me to talk about it. When I open my front door in the Labre Park halting site, where I am living at the moment, I see young men and women in real need of support. Over the Christmas break, on social media posts and elsewhere, we saw reports of young girls aged 12 dying by suicide in the Traveller community. This needs to end.
It is not up to me, as an individual Oireachtas Member, to always come in here and take responsibility for raising this issue. It is not fair to pigeonhole one person in that way. Therefore, I ask everyone here to support a request for the Minister of State with special responsibility for mental health issues, Deputy Butler, to come in and speak to us all about this issue. We must all share responsibility for dealing with this issue. The more collective we are in our efforts, the more action that can be undertaken to help the Traveller community. We must explore what can be put in place to help young Travellers and to stop deaths by suicide happening within the Traveller community as much as we can. Again, the national Traveller mental health network has worked non-stop on this issue. It has all the answers, and all we need now is implementation. Therefore, I reiterate my call for the Minister of State to come into the House, and it should not just be for an exchange between the two of us for four minutes. There should be collective engagement by all of us.
Many sheep farmers across the country have had the horrendous experience of finding their animals, be they cattle or sheep, savaged by stray dogs. Figures recorded from 2020 show that there were 241 such instances, but farmers are of the firm belief that the true figures are much greater and that there is an awful lot of non-reporting because farmers are not convinced that the authorities are taking this seriously. Farmers provide full traceability for 7 million cattle and 3 million breeding sheep, whereby every single animal is individually tagged and traceable to the person responsible or the owner. Contrast that with an estimated 800,000 dogs in this country, of which only 208,000 are licensed. That leaves 600,000 without identification. In 2020 there were only 82 prosecutions and 198 dogs were seized under the Control of Dogs Act 1986. These figures indicate how serious a problem we have. Farmers are very frustrated that the authorities are taking a very lax attitude to this problem. Owning a dog, as we all know, is a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, many dog owners do not do that. The dogs need to be properly microchipped and ID'd. We need proper and appropriate sanctions for those owners found to be non-compliant and to allow their dogs to stray. We also need the proper resources to help those who are enforcing the law in this regard.
We are now entering what is traditionally the lambing season. I ask that the Deputy Leader facilitate the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to come before the Chamber to update us all as to where the promised legislation on this issue is. The issue needs to be addressed once and for all.
I wish to discuss and comment on the report launched this morning by Wind Energy Ireland on green hydrogen and the role it can play in Ireland's energy transition. From reading the report, I believe it is clear that renewable electricity can play a vital role in Ireland's transition to a net-zero society, boost our economy and make our energy supply much more secure. I read the first ten pages of the report; I hope to read the rest of it this evening. It shows how Ireland's abundant wind energy resources could produce vast quantities of green hydrogen. This can be used to reduce significantly our dependence on imported fossil fuels, which caused a lot of significant energy spikes throughout 2021, which we discussed in this House.
The report also sets out how green hydrogen has emerged as a leading option for reducing emissions to decarbonise sectors of the economy. The report calls on the Government to do two things, and I ask for a debate on them. They are, first, to make sure we release a robust hydrogen strategy in quarter 2 of 2022 and, second, to establish a high-level, cross-government group to develop recommendations to cut the price of renewable electricity so we can produce green hydrogen as cheaply and as quickly as possible. I know that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is doing a lot of work in this regard. It would be a good idea either to have a general debate on hydrogen at some stage in this House or to ask for the strategy to be produced as soon as possible so we might discuss it.
I offer a word of thanks to all the people who, in towns big and small, in churches and in sports clubs, in buildings and in the open air, came out in recent days to express their outrage and their pain at the terrible event that occurred in Tullamore. It was very moving to see people's response. I hope we can continue to hold the Murphy family in our hearts in the coming days. It is often said at a time of bereavement that the sympathy one gets in the immediate period is great but that it is in the weeks and months, and indeed years, that follow that people need to remember to look out for the bereaved. Obviously, that applies all the more in this case.
When the time is right, we should have a debate in this House about violence in our society.Much has been said in the past week that needed to be said, in particular the focus on men's attitude to women in our society and the negatives in that area that might have contributed to the outrage that occurred. There has also been commentary on what we need to do to analyse what is going on, including where we have been and are going as a society and how we can address negative attitudes, educate people in better attitudes, prevent and prosecute harm and punish wrongdoing. That is all very important.
We need to broaden the lens even further and be ready to talk about all of the different things that are taking place in our society where we see violence. When we congratulate and welcome, as we often do, all of the progress made in our society ,we also need to be unafraid to ask honestly whether there are ways in which our society is getting worse, why that is and whether it is to do with drug taking, mental health issues and how we deal with those who have mental health problems, with rampant individualism or with violence on our screens, digital media and games. We need to ask if it is, to some degree, due to the loss of faith in our society. A whole lot of issues need to be considered.
If and when we discuss this, I am not interested in hearing all of the things the Government is going to do in the immediate term. All of us, including the Government, need to speak after a reflective study on this issue. We all need to join this conversation about violence in our society, where we have been, where we are going and where we might go if we were to get things right.
Like others, I extend my sympathies to the family, friends, partner and school community of the late Ashling Murphy. Her death has started a number of discussions. I occasionally run and never think about my personal safety as a man, but for women it is an issue of concern. Having spoken to women runners I know it has always been an issue. Even at our local park run on Saturday it was interesting that a discussion started. If one thing comes out of this, it may be that it starts a discussion and that men get involved. I am conscious that when discussions in this House happen, it is often the female voices that are heard. Having a broader debate would be something that would be welcome.
We know that the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, will meet tomorrow and I am worried we will have the usual sequence of events. NPHET will meet, its letter will leak and there will be a number of Ministers who, while they do not want to pre-empt the division of Cabinet, will helpfully offer suggestions as to what may be contained therein. We will have endless speculation for the following 24 hours by political commentators. Some journalists spend more time speculating and trying to influence what might happen rather than reporting what does happen. Finally, the Cabinet will look to meet. I do not think it is particularly fair on many businesses that are waiting and want a very clear timetable as to what is going to happen. Even if it is incorporeal, it is important there is an immediate Cabinet meeting upon the production of the NPHET letter. We have a reasonable idea of what is going to happen. While much of the discussion has been around the hospitality sector, for the arts and entertainment sector to have a good lead-in period we need that certainty. I call for decisions to be made tomorrow and that they be announced and made clear, much like what is happening in Scotland. The necessary support should continue to be put in place for all businesses affected so that they can reopen.
I wish to raise the issue of social media. We have discussed this many times in the Chamber. All of us will have received what I consider to be abusive messages on Twitter. I refer to Twitter in particular because it is probably the most toxic, but my comments refer to all social media platforms. Twitter offers users the ability to report abusive messages or messages that contravene what the company describes as the Twitter rules. I do not usually bother doing that because I think it is a futile exercise, but did so today in respect of a tweet that said I was corrupt. That is obviously not true and there is no evidence behind that claim, but that does not seem to matter to the trolls online.Within two hours I had received a reply that stated it saw no difficulty with the tweet despite the fact its rules state that in order to facilitate healthy dialogue on the platform and empower individuals to express diverse opinions and beliefs, it prohibits behaviour that harasses or intimidates or is otherwise intended to shame or degrade others. Apparently this means it is okay to call people corrupt, describe them as cockroaches and put them into classes of people who do all kinds of awful things. On the one hand Twitter tells us it is serious about this and on the other hand it pays scant regard to politicians, in particular, because I doubt there is a Member of this House, the Dáil or local authorities throughout the country who has not received such a message. Essentially, Twitter states it does not care and it does not matter, and that people can say what they like on social media because politicians do not matter. I suspect this is true of many other groups of people, from schoolchildren to elderly people. The Chamber has an opportunity to send a message to Twitter and other social media platforms, and I hope legislation will come forward this year in this regard, that it will not be acceptable to have so-called rules that mean absolutely nothing because they are never enforced. If Twitter is serious about having a platform that is not filled with the toxicity we see in it today, it has to enforce these rules and it has to take action against users who continue to flout these rules.
It is another day and another year and I am back to raise the issue of the Stardust inquest. The last speech I made last year was to implore the Minister to give clarity to the families about where the inquest would be held. Nobody in the Department had the foresight, knowing the contract would end in October, to find an alternative human rights compliant venue. It is now the middle of January and the families still do not know where the inquest will be held. What has come to light in the preliminary hearings today is that the State is putting it to the families that the inquest should be held by a judge with no jury, effectively like the Special Criminal Court. The families at the inquest will have to go in and have their case heard by a judge because the State refuses to pay a jury.
This will be the most significant and longest-running inquest in the history of the State. It is the most significant inquest that will ever be held and the State will not pay the jury. How can we expect jurors to come in and give up at least a year of their time to hear what happened on that night and do it for nothing? In recent weeks, the barrister representing the families asked the Department of Justice to write to the courts and request permission that the Juries Act would be extended to the Stardust inquest. This will not be done. The Minister has said the Department is not prepared to do that.
Once again the families of the Stardust fire are being treated with absolute contempt by the State. The families have gone through four decades of contempt. A total of €1.5 million was spent on a venue that was hardly used. Now the families are told they are not worthy of having a jury paid to hear the case and they have to be dealt with in an inquest held by a judge. If the Minister, Deputy McEntee, is not prepared to write to the courts and ask that the Juries Act be extended to the Stardust inquest, I will bring legislation to the House to plead that the families be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
I express my sincere commiseration to the family, friends and pupils of Ashling Murphy. Words can never adequately express our sympathy, sadness or anger. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis. While the whole country is convulsed and repulsed by Ashling's murder it is important that we remember that in the past 15 years 236 women have been killed in Ireland violently. One in four women in Ireland have experienced abuse from their partner. In 2020 alone, 855 disclosures of sexual abuse were made to Women's Aid services.Last November, in this Chamber, I and other Senators called on the Leader to bring the Minister for Justice to this House for a debate on violence against women, gender-based violence, domestic violence, sexual violence and violence in our society. I believe it is beyond the time for us to acknowledge that this is a large-scale and deep-seated problem in our society. The violence against women is killing our mothers, sisters, friends and daughters, and we have gone beyond the point where we can ignore this anymore.
This deep-rooted issue is not a series of isolated incidents; it is wide scale. That is why we need a deep-rooted and systemic response. We need a response that will deal with everything from language through to education, housing, health, entertainment and social media. I mean every nitty-gritty thing that affects the daily lives of every girl and woman in every village and community in this country. I hope the Deputy Leader can advise the House today on when that debate will take place.
I take the opportunity to speak about Rescue 117 and the search and rescue base at Waterford Airport. Since the pre-qualification questionnaire for the new contract was published prior to Christmas, there has been a considerable amount of speculation and an understandable concern expressed within the south east regarding the likely configuration of operations when the new contract is awarded. While the pre-qualification questionnaire is silent on the issue of bases, it does specify there should be a minimum of three helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft, which some have suggested opens up the possibility of a base being dropped and that Waterford stands to lose out.
While I share the concern, I do not share the downbeat assessment that such a vital service would be lost to the region because of the following. I am a former member of the board of Waterford Airport and know the service provided by the airport to the existing contractor, which is CHC Ireland, is second to none. CHC Ireland is very happy with its base and operations at the airport. Great synergies have been built up with the likes of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and South East Mountain Rescue over many years. Another reason I do not share the downbeat assessment is because over several months I have engaged with Government colleagues and the Tánaiste on this issue. I sought assurances that four bases will be specified in the ultimate tender that is issued and I am encouraged by the responses I have received today. Also, the Tánaiste will continue his dialogue with other party leaders in this respect.
The importance of maintaining a search and rescue base in the south east to service the vast swathes of maritime areas and inland areas along the south and east coast is critically important. The bravery and dedication of the crew that operate Rescue 117 give great comfort to the communities I represent. There is an opportunity at this moment to frame that tender to ensure there are four bases in the new tender that is ultimately issued. Geographically, the four bases of Waterford, Sligo, Shannon and Dublin have served the State well and I expect them to serve the State well into the future.
First, I express my sympathy and condolences to the Murphy family and the Tullamore community on the senseless murder of Ashling Murphy.
Second, I warmly welcome the announcement made today that public healthcare workers who worked on the front line during the Covid-19 pandemic are to receive a once-off €1,000 tax-free payment. I note and particularly welcome that student nurses who did placements in hospitals and healthcare settings are also in line for the payment. That is good news for student nurses to kick off 2022. What would be better news for student nurses and midwives would be confirmation on when they will get their €100 weekly stipend because the last time I checked, the moneys had yet to enter any of their bank accounts. The Deputy Leader might be so good as to follow up with her party colleague, the Minister for Health, on this issue.
I want to reflect briefly on the discussion on the national drugs strategy that took place at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Health this morning. I wish to note that Senator Ruane and I were in attendance.The conversation felt at times as if we were back in the time of Richard Nixon declaring a war on drugs. That has simply proven to be unfounded and a waste of time, money and resources. It only perpetuates stigma and harm on drug users.
The Government has declared it is taking a health-led approach to drugs, but what I heard today at the committee did not instil much confidence that this is true. For the record, I am a harm reductionist, if that is the terminology we can use. I believe it is the only practical, realistic, person-centred approach we can take to drugs. The international evidence also supports this. In addition, in the committee there was a great deal of conflation of decriminalising and legalising drugs. If we are to have a mature, well-informed discussion on this topic, which I believe the public wants, and there are calls for a citizens' assembly on this issue, the least we can do is understand what we are talking about. I urge Members to get informed on the terminology, to put preconceived notions about drug users to the back of their minds and to engage with the evidence on how we can truly reduce drug-related harm.
I send my deepest sympathies to the family and friends of, and everybody who loved, Ashling Murphy, and indeed to all the women who we have lost and whose lives have been stolen in this country and across the world. We know lives have been taken, lives have been destroyed and lives have been threatened continuously in this country. We speak about it in this Chamber quite often. I and other colleagues have been raising gender abuse, abuse, sexual harassment and sexual assault continuously for months and years in this Chamber. I was told on the radio the other morning that women should start speaking up about it. I told the presenter that men and people should start listening and that changes have to start happening.
Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke about people changing their routes when running. A woman was assaulted on a route at home where I used to run. I have not run there since then because I am afraid. I look behind me constantly when I run. I look behind more now when I am running or out and about. It is not right. We are exhausted with it. It is just relentless. Every day of the week one can look at the headlines about girls being assaulted, and the sentencing in some cases is absolutely incomparable to the damage done to women.
This is a day of celebration for mná na hÉireann. I am very glad it is a Louth woman, St. Brigid, who was born in Faughart. Remember that this woman gouged out her eyes to make herself ugly because she did not want unwanted attention from men. On the day that we remember St. Brigid and revel in her strength and mightiness and how proud we are to have her as our patron saint, remember what she did to get rid of unwanted attention from men. I applaud her, although I do not agree with it. However, that is what she did in the fifth century. Go on, Brigid.
I echo what Senator Hoey said about the health committee meeting. I had to turn off the camera at one stage as I thought I was going to have a panic attack. I thought I had been hurled through time, given everything I have stood for in this Chamber over the last six years and hoped that people were listening to me. I felt very disheartened and sad. I thought: "What is the point in me constantly speaking about this issue?" when I listened to the Minister of State, who is now two years into the role. I believe my 14-year-old could have engaged better on the issue in the health committee meeting today. I am absolutely appalled that this is where we are, two years into his term of office.
However, that is not the reason I stand to speak today. We have had many conversations over the years about the impacts of Covid-19 on people, schools, education and the health sector, but we have had very little discussion about its impact on those in the prison system. I do a lot of work on education in schools in the prison system. When we think about education we do not think about education within the institutions where we detain people. People there do not have access to their families, as they usually would. At home, we can have telephone calls, we can have FaceTime meetings and we can talk to our loved ones when we have to go into isolation. However, when one is in a prison, one is in a prison within a prison within a prison because one will be locked down for up to 12 or 14 days for being a close contact. We also have not set up the health system properly in the prison system to be able to offer vaccinations adequately on intake in terms of the COVAX system.A prisoner in Mountjoy wrote to me. He lost one of his jobs within the prison because he would have to shave his beard to be able to use the masks that are now required to be worn. For some people, it is a big deal to be asked to shave their beard. That could be for religious or cultural reasons, but it could also be that the person feels vulnerable. Facial hair for men can sometimes be far more than something they think looks well; it can be a way to hide themselves and hold themselves. There is a significant amount happening within the prison system. In fairness to the Irish Prison Service, it is trying to deal with this issue in the context of what is already quite a difficult situation in terms of outbreaks. I ask the Leader to consider facilitating a debate on the impact of Covid-19 on those in prison.
Like other Members, I join with colleagues in expressing my sympathies to the family of the late Ashling Murphy, but also to her peers and former lecturers at Mary Immaculate College. I know from speaking to some of them that it has been an awful few days for them. It was lovely that everybody paid tribute and gave their thoughts in a very positive way.
I wish to raise the issue of a hybrid leaving certificate. I know the Leader tabled a Commencement matter with the Minister, Deputy Foley, on this issue earlier today. I have received many calls and other communications from students who are under severe stress. We all talk about well-being and mindfulness. Many students feel very under pressure and do not know what is happening. They want a hybrid leaving certificate because they believe that although they may have had a lot more time in class than leaving certificate students in the previous two years had, they still have not had the same degree of in-class schooling that other students had before the pandemic. I know the committee will meet tomorrow but I ask the Leader to consider giving her support to contacting the Minister, Deputy Foley, on this issue.
Family Carers Ireland has today called on the Government to recognise carers in terms of the Covid bonus. I wish to lend my support to that campaign because carers have helped to keep so many people at home. They have helped to keep people out of hospitals and they have done tremendous work. Family Carers Ireland is seeking to have carers included among recipients of the Covid bonus and I wish to support it in that regard.
Like all other Members, I too wish to express my sympathies to the family of the late Ashling Murphy. The manner in which she died was brutal and horrific. There are societal challenges and issues that need to be dealt with. This Chamber needs to lead in terms of the conversations that need to happen, but also the actions that need to be taken. That is important. It is all very well talking about it and expressing shock and so on, but we actually need to deal with it and take action on it. I look forward to the debate next week and a timeline for actions. Those of us who have the privilege of being Members of Parliament have an absolute responsibility to actually lead on this and ensure we can make Ireland a safe place. I truly believe we can do so, but it will require all of us, particularly men, to stand up, do the right thing, call out and take action. I look forward to that debate.
A neighbour of mine who lived five minutes down the road from me was killed in a plane crash. He worked with the UN food programme. His name was Mick Ryan and he died three years ago in a plane accident. His widow, Naoise, is looking for justice in the United States. Deputy Sean Sherlock raised this issue in Dáil Éireann today and I am now raising it in the Seanad. Mick Ryan dedicated his life to serving the world and the most needy people in it.He worked for the World Food Programme. He lost his life in an air accident. Answers are still not forthcoming as to why it happened. Justice has not been forthcoming. Mr. Ryan's widow, Naoise, his mother, Christina, a neighbour of mine, and his siblings deserve answers. Could the Leader write to the Taoiseach supporting what I am looking for, namely for him to use his good offices to intervene, where possible, and support the calls made by Deputy Sherlock in Dáil Éireann and me today in Seanad Éireann.
My heart goes out to Ashling Murphy's family. I was particularly mindful yesterday of the first class kids lining the street. I have two granddaughters, Ellie and Isabel. I cannot imagine what it would take to explain to either of them the brutality by which the woman died. It is now a matter for the courts and Garda, so I will say no more about it.
I was delighted to hear Senator Cummins speak about search and rescue services. I am aware that 17 of the south-eastern representatives have come together on this. I will have more to say on that tomorrow.
I want to draw attention to a certain matter for the information of Members who do not know about it. Our former colleague, Ian Marshall, was honoured in the Christmas honours list by Her Majesty, the Queen of England, and made an OBE. I ask that the Seanad write to the former Senator and congratulate him on his elevation. He is to be a candidate for the Ulster Unionist Party in the forthcoming elections. All of us would agree that he is the sort of moderate individual that we need working with us on the other side of the Border. He was a really good guy and I wish him all the best.
Before I call on the Leader, I join my colleagues to express, on my own behalf and on behalf of the House, our sympathies to the family, friends and colleagues of Ashling Murphy. It was a tragic loss for them and all the community. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam.
As expected, almost all Members rose this afternoon to express their condolences and deepest sympathies to the Murphy family and to Ashling's community,
friends, school colleagues and the children at her school on what was an extremely tragic and horrific murder. Many colleagues have requested justice debate. We have secured a debate with the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, next Thursday. The Minister will come into the Chamber for a debate specifically on violence against women. We welcome that debate for next week.
The Order of Business was kicked off by Senator Fiona O'Loughlin, who welcomed the announcement that we are to have a new public holiday on St. Brigid's Day, beginning in 2023. This is welcome. I commend the Senator on her work campaigning for that. She worked very hard to secure the date. It is a very apt one, indeed. There will be a day of commemoration this year, on 18 March, to remember all those we lost throughout the pandemic and continue to lose.
The Senator also raised the issue of the Commission on the Defence Forces and the ongoing recruitment and retention issues in the Defence Forces. We await the outcome. The Senator also raised the issue of insurance and the plight of a young couple for whom insurance presented a difficulty regarding a housing issue.
Senator Keogan spoke about the year 2021 being the year of fear. She raised certain issues in that regard and touched on recent events. She also called for the removal of restrictions at the earliest opportunity. Obviously, we are awaiting advices from NPHET on that front. When they are received, a meeting of the Cabinet will follow shortly after.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly spoke about the Yellow Flag programme, as did Senator Flynn. Reference was made to the need to educate our young people on how to deal with others and to be decent human beings who treat others with respect. Senator O'Reilly also referred to the need to tackle identity-based bullying. She referred specifically to poor Eden Heaslip, who tragically lost his life because of his experience. That is something we need to deal with. Education seems to be key on this issue.
Senator Ó Donnghaile raised several issues, one being the €1,000 payment for front-line healthcare workers. He has requested further clarity. We will try to arrange a debate on that and other health matters with the Minister for Health at the earliest opportunity.He also raised the issue of report by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. He requested a debate on that as well. We will certainly see that debate.
Senator Moynihan raised the Dublin transport strategy and, in particular, issues in south-west Dublin and connectivity to that particular region.
I would like to welcome Senator Flynn back from maternity leave. It is great to have her back. She spoke about the Yellow Flag programme as well. She made an impassioned plea for us to all work together to tackle Traveller mental health and the crisis within her community. She made the important point that it is not just on her shoulders as one individual to solve this problem. There is a collective onus on all of us to work to deal with that issue. She requested a debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Gallagher raised the issue of stray dogs attacking livestock, such as sheep and cattle. There were 241 incidents reported in 2020. However, the belief is that many more go unreported. He requested a debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to discuss that issue.
Senator McGahon spoke about the Wind Energy Ireland report, as well as the need to have a debate on hydrogen and, in particular, green hydrogen. He mentioned the asks in that report such as a cross-government group to look at reducing prices for renewable energy. He requested a debate with the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications. I will request that.
Senator Mullen raised the issue of violence in society more generally, as opposed to just violence amongst one particular grouping in society. He made some interesting points on the need to reflect on why we are where we are and how we can perhaps get to a different space.
Senator Byrne spoke about the need for men to get involved in the debate around gender-based violence and in particular on violence against women, as did Senator Ó Donnghaile. He also called for an end to restrictions tomorrow. I agree with him that the speculation is quite unhelpful. It seems to be the same merry-go-round that we hop onto every time there is a NPHET briefing or a leaked letter. It is quite unhelpful. While that might be an annoyance to all of us, it is frustrating and upsetting for those businesses that rely on that advice and on those restrictions being lifted. The Senator's request to have that decision made at the earliest opportunity is a good request and one that will hopefully be listened to.
Senator Ward spoke about social media, in particular Twitter, as well as the online abuse that we all get on social media. Twitter is a more difficult space, in particular. The online safety and media regulation Bill, which is due to come into effect shortly, will deal with that. However, we need a much stronger online safety commissioner. We need to deal with those issues. The Senator outlined a good example of why rules seem to be in place but are not being enforced by Twitter. We know that Twitter is a space where particularly politicians are subject to quite a high level of unsavoury remarks.
Senator Boylan again raised the issue of the Stardust inquiry. I am not sure what I can say to her in response today, other than that I will pass her remarks up the line. I can understand why the victims and their families are so upset at the option of a jury hearing not being available to them. I can see why that is upsetting. Four decades is a long time to wait for answers. I commend the Senator on consistently raising the issue on the floor of the House and for keeping the issue alive in here. It is important.
Senator Fitzpatrick raised the issue of violence against women in particular. We have known about this for a very long time. One in four women experience abuse from their partners and 244 women have lost their lives since reporting to Women's Aid has begun. The Senator has asked for that justice debate, which we have secured for next week.
Senator Cummins raised the issue of the R117 service. I am aware of the collective approach of Oireachtas Members in the region to try and retain that service. Obviously, we had particular issues with the service in County Mayo. As Members will be aware, this is an important service to have available 24-7. Hopefully, a resolution can be found.
Senator Hoey welcomed the €1,000 bonus payment for healthcare workers, as well as the fact that student nurses were included, and rightly so. Of course they should have been included. I am glad they have been. It is a way of saying, "Thank you." I do not think the payment is a huge amount for what all healthcare workers have put in. However, it is welcome. It was a difficult decision for Government to try to identify which front-line workers were to receive that payment. However, I believe it struck the right balance in focusing on front-line healthcare workers who dealt directly with Covid-19 because they have been at particular risk during the pandemic. They were putting their own lives at risk. There was that distinction, which was an important one to draw. The Senator asked particularly about the €100 weekly stipend. This might be suitable to raise as a Commencement matter, because it was quite a specific question. She might be answered more quickly by doing it that way. I take on board her points around the drug strategy, which were raised at the health committee this morning. Judging by the comments of Senators Hoey and Ruane, it does not sound like the engagement with committee members was overly helpful. Hopefully, that engagement might happen again with more information on the table. I would agree with a health-based approach, because the way we do things currently does not work and it will never work. There is a fear for some reason of doing things differently, so we will just keep burying our heads in the sand and just keep going as we are. However, it is not making the situation any better; it just makes it worse. I think therefore that we are on the same page with that approach.
Senator McGreehan raised the issue of Ashling Murphy. She spoke about sentencing not being sufficient and how it does not cover the extent of the damage that is done to the victim. I wholeheartedly agree with that. I echo the remarks by Senator O’Loughlin around St. Brigid’s Day. She spoke about the values of St. Brigid and how we should remember what she had to go through. It is an important reminder for all of us, even though it was quite a time ago, and it is important lesson for us to learn.
Senator Ruane mentioned the health committee meeting, which I have just dealt with. In particular, she raised the issue of the impact of Covid-19 in prisons. It would be an interesting debate to have. I will put a request in for that debate. Perhaps the Senator could put in a request herself to the Leader’s office, so that we join up on that.
Senator Maria Byrne raised the issue of a hybrid leaving certificate for students. That request is coming in from many students and parents. I acknowledge the stress that students are facing. However, the leaving certificate an inherently stressful time anyway, no matter which way one looks at it. Hopefully the right balance can be struck in having a system that is fair to all students so that we provide a level playing field. I do not know how that will look. It is a difficult balance to strike. However, I can understand the difficulty that the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, is having in finding that right balance. At the end of the day, we want to make sure that the students have a level playing field and that they are treated fairly. That can be a difficult thing to achieve in these times.
Senator Conway rose to speak about his friend, the now deceased Mick Ryan, and his widow, Naoise, and her call for justice, following that plane crash where her husband lost his life. He has asked for assistance with that matter. We will certainly do all that we can.
Finally, Senator Craughwell congratulated former Senator, Ian Marshall, on his newly received accolade. He also spoke about support for R117, and concurred with the remarks of Senator Cummins. That concludes the Order of Business.