Thursday, 5 May 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I thank the Cathaoirleach and wish colleagues a good afternoon. The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding a proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Regulation (EU) 2018/1727 of the European Parliament and the Council, as regards the collection, preservation and analysis of evidence relating to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes at Eurojust, to be taken upon conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; and No. 2, Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) (Amendment) Bill 2021 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 1.45 p.m.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for reading out the names of those who lost their lives in the tragedy in Cork 100 years ago. I acknowledge the comments by my colleague, Senator Lombard, on this issue last week on attending the commemoration.
I got a call this morning from a local primary school that is taking in 17 Ukrainian children. All was going well and the children are settling in as best they can under the circumstances and the school and teachers are dealing with the situation as best they can as well. They are travelling from a hotel about 14 km away and one of the parents was accompanying them on the bus from the hotel to the school in order to ensure there would be somebody there with the language skills to deal with the bus driver if anything were to happen.
Unfortunately, the school was contacted this morning by Bus Éireann to tell it the parent can no longer travel on the bus with the students, even though she is the mother of one of them, and that that is now company policy. Since then, I have raised this through the Tánaiste's Department to bring it up the line because it does not make sense to me. I am not sure whether it is an issue of insurance or one of child protection, even though the parent is Garda-vetted, as one would expect given she also works in the local school in a voluntary capacity to deal with her own child and the students from Ukraine. It is therefore a strange issue and one that needs to be sorted. As I said, the worrying thing is this is now company policy nationwide, I assume. I have gone up the line on this and perhaps the Leader could do so as well.
On a second matter, I understand there have been a number of resignations from the board of Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI. I was the Minister of State responsible for IFI a number of years ago. It was a challenging role for a variety of reasons but there now seems to be much unhappiness within the board as there have been two resignations, with more possibly to come. I am aware the Minister is looking at a whole independent review, as I understand it, of the board. There needs to be more than just looking at the board. There are management issues within IFI. There are issues that are happening that are being brought to the board belatedly, including, for example, 16 uninsured company vehicles on the road, one of which has been involved in a crash. The cost of that has not been established.
There has been locally-arranged leasing of Ashleigh Lodge, which was an IFI property, to a staff member as a guest house with no transparency process or financial accounts. There was inappropriate disbursal of Dormant Accounts Fund moneys, allocation to an angling club that did not exist and other matters as well. Again, IFI is a central body. Centralising it was not the right move. There is now a dissociation between central management and the work needed on the ground. I ask that the Minister be asked to come to the House to discuss all matters angling as he initiates a review of the governance or accountability of the board.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Cathaoirleach. There is mention in the Order of Business of war crimes and genocide within Europe. It is very timely we discuss that in the context of the events in Ukraine. This week we were all treated to a graphic courtesy of Russa-1, Moscow's state television, in which we were shown an infographic purporting to show a submarine nuclear drone that would have the power to generate a tsunami or tidal wave to destroy both Ireland and our neighbours in Britain. As the Kremlin spokesperson put it, it would turn both Ireland and Britain into a nuclear desert. While I think the idea is farcical and outside the realms of what is scientifically possible given the Russians do not possess such weapons, it gives us an insight into their intent and what their next steps might be.My fear is that deprived of a conventional victory in Donbas and certainly having been pushed back from Kyiv, Putin along with his administration and those who empower him may consider the use of tactical nuclear missiles. Unlike the weapon that the Russians purported to possess, they do possess 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons and have deployed 1,500 of them. All the talk thus far has been about supplying weapons to Ukraine, with which I agree, to support the Ukrainians in their resistance against the Russians. However, we now need to begin to talk about de-escalation and bringing this conflict to a halt. We need to have a ceasefire.
This is a standard conventional conflict and, in the past, the United Nations has been able to suggest very robust Chapter 7 interventions to create a buffer zone with the agreement of all parties. We need to look for that. The UN Security Council needs to push this line. The UN Secretary General, Mr. Guterres, is in Nigeria today, but with the risk of nuclear escalation and a war that none of us wants to find ourselves in, this is what we should be pushing for. That would allow for a full and proper investigation of war crimes in Kharkiv, Irpin, Kherson, Mariupol and so on. The House should debate the alternatives to just sending weapons, and work on ways of constructing a ceasefire and getting a good robust UN intervention to bring a halt to the killing and prevent escalation.
I welcome the Cathaoirleach's remembering the tragic victims in Cork 100 years ago. I remind colleagues that today also represents the 41st anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, a great man. It is important to remember him today, particularly as our brothers and sisters in the North go to vote in a crucial election.
The Limerick Shannon metropolitan area strategy plan was published last week. It is hard to put into words the amount of frustration that people have expressed to me on this issue. The northern distributor road, a key part of Limerick's infrastructure, has been effectively dropped by the Green Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. This is particularly tragic because after a major battle locally, involving people in Moyross aided by my colleague, Deputy Quinlivan, we managed to get the Coonagh to Knockalisheen road almost built; it will be completed in the coming months. That road effectively will now go to nowhere because the northern distributor road will not be built. The northern distributor road is absolutely key to opening up Moyross and encouraging industry into an area that has been neglected for too many years. Once again it has been let down by Government. I am disappointed with Government politicians effectively blaming the Green Party. While a Green Party Minister made the decision, of course, there is collective Cabinet responsibility. This is a Government decision which effectively puts road infrastructure in Limerick on hold.
The rest of the plan contains many good things, including promises relating to rail and bus, but they are very vague and aspirational. For example, there is a call for another feasibility study for a spur to Shannon Airport. The first time that was raised was in 1997. Some 25 years later, we are still looking at feasibility plans. The language in the area plan is the language of let us examine this, let us look at the feasibility of that. It begs the question as to what the Government has been doing for the last two years. We are nearly at the halfway point of this Government. Limerick is effectively on hold. There is talk of transport possibilities but nothing concrete.
A key part of our infrastructure has effectively been denied by the Government. It is not good enough for the people in Limerick and there is considerable frustration related to that. This has added to the ongoing issues with Limerick hospital, which was raised again yesterday. Things are getting worse rather than better and we have had to deal with this for years. As things stand it is very unlikely that we will have a motorway between Limerick and Cork; it is more likely to be a regional dual carriageway. This is another failure in terms of developing the western corridor to ensure we have a proper counterbalance to Dublin. I feel that Limerick has effectively been put on hold by this Government when it comes to key infrastructure projects. It is not good enough and I am calling for an urgent debate on the matter.
I wish to propose an amendment to the Order of Business that No. 19, the Right to Flexible Work Bill 2022, be taken before No. 1. Those of us who talk to people in our communities know of the enormous demand for flexible work arrangements among those who work and those who want to work but cannot work because of various structural barriers in their lives such as the cost of childcare and inflexibility of hours. This particularly applies to those who are lone parents or have a disability. This is borne out by a number of CSO surveys, particularly the pulse survey last November which showed that 88% of all workers are looking for flexible work arrangements.
The question for us, as legislators, is how we should respond to that demand and ensure there is a strong legal framework to promote and protect flexible work. We know from the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Government's right to request remote work Bill 2021 that it is not fit for purpose. The extensive and sweeping nature of the 13 grounds for refusing a request, the 26-week waiting period and the failure to allow any appeal have all been roundly criticised by many of those appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, particularly Grow Remote, Glofox, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions along with Deputies and Senators from across the political spectrum who want a better and stronger legal framework for flexible work arrangements in this country.
We are introducing this Bill today on a right to flexible work on the basis of having talked to a number of groups. We recognise that this is important for those who want to stay in their jobs, those who do not want to reduce working hours because of caring responsibilities or because of other issues going on with their lives, and also to tap into all those who want to work but cannot work. The Disability Federation of Ireland, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, SPARK and the unions have all given input into our legislation which would effectively give a right to flexible work from the first day of employment and make flexible work a default and not the exception or a perk for good behaviour after 26 weeks. It should be a right for all workers and not just those with caring responsibilities, as has been set out in the work-life balance Bill that the Government plans to introduce. We know that thousands of people commute long distances and no longer want to commute five days a week. We know that thousands of people have been forced to move house because of the housing crisis in the city and throughout the country.
We are introducing the First Stage today and hope to be able to take Second Stage in the coming months. We hope that the Government, as it has claimed over the past two months, will introduce improvements to its right to request remote work Bill. As of now, we have not seen anything in that regard. We are left despairing at the Government's attitude towards the potential for remote and flexible working arrangements in the country.
We have often spoken in this House about the importance of human rights informing our foreign policy. Our approach to what is happening in Ukraine has been very much based on our view that we cannot be politically neutral when human rights are being abused. This House has been very strong about the abuse of human rights in Belarus and the oppression under the Lukashenko regime. While much of the focus has been on Putin's war, Lukashenko, as the puppet of Vladimir Putin, continues to support his actions. At every possible international forum, we need to support those who have been speaking out for human rights and for democracy and against repression in Belarus.
The increasing repression of human rights in Cuba is also of concern. More individuals are being detained for expressing political opposition to the Government. More individuals when they speak out in the press are finding that their rights are being curbed and they are being detained.Anyone who raises concerns around this within Cuba draws the attention of the forces of the state.
One of the ultimate tests, no matter what country in which you live, is if I disagree with a decision taken by government, can I go outside and protest peacefully against that government without fear of repercussion? In this House, on a cross-party basis, we have always been willing to speak out loudly in defence of human rights. I am very conscious that Ireland is to seek a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. It is important when we do that that we call out human rights abuses, no matter where in the world they occur. We have a proud record of doing that. At a time when liberal democracy is under threat in many parts of the world, it is important we speak out about the values we regard as particularly important. In that regard, I welcome the invitation that has been extended to the Cathaoirleach and to the Ceann Comhairle to visit the national parliament in Kyiv. I wish them well. I hope that when they address it, they bring with them the best wishes of all Members of these Houses as well as talking about Ireland’s very strong commitment to human rights and democracy.
I compliment the Cathaoirleach on naming the 13 men who were, unfortunately, shot just over 100 years ago. I was at that ceremony on Wednesday of last week in Dunmanway. It was a touching and moving ceremony. The acknowledgement today by the Cathaoirleach is very important. It is part of that healing process. We are going through a decade of commemoration and this a part of our commemoration. It is important we have seen here this afternoon that this Chamber is not afraid of dealing with tough issues. This was and is a tough issue for many families and people, especially in west Cork and particularly in the Bandon Valley area. I compliment the Cathaoirleach on his proactive approach in naming those poor people who were shot just over 100 years ago. When we come through this decade of commemoration, and we have gone through many commemorations all the way through, we should remember there was good, bad and ugly. Unfortunately, this was one of the ugly issues. This morning was a very important morning. It will deeply appreciated by many people in Cork and in Ireland. I compliment the Cathaoirleach and the House on making a statement.
I would like to touch on what Senator Byrne initially spoke about regarding Ukraine. I wish the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle well. I understand they will be travelling to Ukraine on Monday. It is a great day for both our Houses that the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle’s counterparts in Ukraine are extending an invitation to them. I wish them a safe journey. I hope it will be a successful trip. I hope they will bring our good wishes. More important, I hope they will bring back some messages to us.
I would ask the Leader, with the support of the Cathaoirleach, that we would have some sort of statement or engagement about the trip. While the Cathaoirleach will be there as our representative and as Cathaoirleach of this esteemed Chamber, the communication should be two way. It is a matter of bringing messages out, but it is also about passive listening. It is about bringing messages back to this Chamber. I would like if we could set some time aside - it does not need to be a lot of time - during which the Cathaoirleach might be able to share his experiences of this trip as well as what he heard in terms of passive listening. I wish the Cathaoirleach well and a safe journey next Monday. It is to be hoped we will see him at the end of the week.
I would ask the Leader if we could have some debate about the Ukraine crisis and, importantly, about the issue of education. Through this crisis, we have many thousands of young children in Ireland, and they are welcome. It is important we respect their identity and we put all the supports in place for that identity. This is especially the case as it relates to the transition of language, communication and the spoken language of English. It is so important they have the ability and the educational support that is necessary to continue their native tongue while they are here, but also that they have the great opportunity to learn another language. What an opportunity. Children absorb like a sponge. They will be able to speak fluent English in 12 months. That is the reality of it. I would have loved to have had that opportunity. This is a crisis, but there is a different opportunity coming out of the crisis. It is really important we put supports in place. The education and training boards, ETBs, are potentially a place where this can happen within local communities. I ask that we have a focused debate on the challenges and plans we have to put in place to support education for children and to support them, their parents and older people to learn the English language in this country.
I raise the issue of the summer programme in special schools. I have been contacted by families across Galway city and county who want to and need to avail of this programme but are not sure they will be able to. This is because only 28% of the schools operated the programme last summer, and that figure is not expected to change significantly this summer. A number of parents have advised me of this.
To provide some data and facts, of the 8,018 children who have been enrolled in special schools in 2021, just 1,641, or approximately 20%, had any access to the July provision, which is now named the summer programme. Just 5% of those children - 410 pupils - received the full allocation of four weeks. Just 410 pupils received the full four-week allocation of last year’s summer programme. Departmental data shows that just eight special schools in Ireland did the full allocation of four weeks, including two hospital schools. A further 31 special schools did between one and three weeks.
The Department states parents can avail of the home-based option if their school is not participating. While this is factually correct, the Department itself acknowledges that home-based programmes are considered the least effective way to deliver the scheme. Families advise that in addition to home tutors not being as effective, it is almost impossible to find a home tutor. Many families do not try because it merely creates further stress in their lives. These families are in extraordinarily difficult situations that those who do not have experience in cannot begin to understand. They should be the top priority for supports.
It is a relatively small cohort that is being spoken about here. Of the total school population of 1 million, only 8,108 are in special schools, with a further 8,500 in special classes. Whatever needs to done should be done to ensure these families have effective supports, whatever the cost. A country is judged on how those most vulnerable are treated. Clearly, we need to make massive improvements. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to come before the House next week, if possible.
Before I start, I welcome Councillor Paddy McQuillan. He and I served together on Louth County Council. Although he is from Drogheda and I am from Dundalk, I will not hold that against him. He is a great representative for Drogheda and he is here as a guest of Senator Craughwell.
The issue I wish to talk about is as a result of a meeting I had with Paul and Niamh Brady in Dundalk last week. They have recently set up the Drive Virtual Driving Academy. I had a good opportunity to try it out. It is incredible and is exactly what I said: a virtual driving academy. It gives people the option to learn how to drive a car virtually a couple of times before having to go out on the road for the first time, whether they are 16, 17, 18 or 19 and learning how to drive, an older person in life or, as in some situations I have seen, a person coming back from a very severe medical situation such as a brain haemorrhage where it is difficult to learn how to drive again and it can be daunting to get back into a car on the road for the first time. The concept of virtual driving is that it is bespoke, realistic, impressive and gives a really good feel for it. It allows people to build up their confidence virtually and in a safe manner before going out onto the road themselves. It is a good idea and is something for the future. It is only really starting in Ireland now, but it is being used right around the world.The reason I bring this up today is that I believe it would be really useful if some thought was given to driving licences and how tests operate in this country. You have to do 12 lessons before you can take a test. I believe that one, two or perhaps even three lessons should be done virtually and that these should count towards the 12 required before someone is allowed to go for a test. It would make our roads a lot safer and would make people more confident and at ease. Niamh and Paul Brady are pioneering this technology. I would appreciate it if the Leader were to write to the Road Safety Authority or to speak to the Government about reforming our driving lessons model and introducing virtual lessons.
The recent report of the Children's Rights Alliance gives all of us an opportunity to reflect, ten years on from the children's rights referendum. The name of the report is Voice, Rights, Action! and it calls for the lowering of the voting age to 16 for elections in this State. There are two Bills on the Order Paper that aim to lower the voting age to 16 and 17 for local and European elections. The last Seanad witnessed what was probably the most co-ordinated campaign to lower the voting age to 16 and 17. It was proposed that this be done for local and European elections. The Bill remains on Committee Stage, having first been proposed in 2016. We wanted to achieve reform in time for the 2019 local and European elections. It should be remembered that this Bill is not concerned with general elections, referendums or presidential elections. Change in respect of these would require constitutional change and constitutional amendments cannot be proposed in this House. However, it is not a bad idea to make a start with local and European elections. Scotland and Wales have made such a change in respect of their assembly elections and Scotland also did so for its referendum. That has been successful. Until we can get constitutional change, this would be a helpful amendment. It would also be helpful in winning any eventual referendum. The Children's Rights Alliance report calls for the voting age to be lowered to 16. Are we prepared to listen to children and young people and for them to hold us to account? Youth organisations across the country support this change. Over the last 100 years, we have continually widened the electoral franchise and we should do so again in time for the 2024 local and European elections through the Electoral (Amendment) (Voting at 16) Bill 2021, which is to eventually come before the Seanad this year.
With regret, I once again rise today to speak up on behalf of Robert Pether, who is callously locked up in an Iraqi jail. We in this House fought very hard for Richard O'Halloran, and rightly so. I was part of that campaign, as were many other Senators. However, I am sad to say that nobody seems to be interested in doing much about Robert Pether's case. For those who do not know, Mr. Pether is Australian but his wife and children are Irish citizens. His wife's family came from Dublin and emigrated to Australia a number of years ago. I am not going into all that happened but I will pay tribute to the Leader on the efforts she has made in her engagements with the Department of Foreign Affairs, in her meetings with me, in her meeting with Desree Pether and her son and in her involvement with diplomatic people in Australia and Iraq. It is a sad reflection on the state of affairs that I am again raising this matter here today. Whether people like it or not, I will say here that I do not think enough effort is being put in for the Pether family. I am watching a family in meltdown. They live near me at home in County Roscommon. I have seen, in some of the links they have with the jail when they are allowed to talk to their father and husband, how hard it is on him. If we do not get some more action from the Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs on this, I am going to demand that we have a debate in this House about the plight of the Pether family and their husband and dad. I am going to push this because they are being totally left behind. It is not good enough. There is absolute goodwill here. Many Senators have spoken to me and have done their best. As I have said, the Leader has done her best and the Cathaoirleach always allows me to bring up this matter. We need to do more. I look forward to the Leader's response.
I wish the Cathaoirleach well on his trip on Monday. I wish him Godspeed. Today, the Central Statistics Office announced that the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.8% in April, when it was 7.5% in April 2021. We have 129,500 people unemployed in this country. In her Bill, Senator Sherlock speaks about the whole issue of flexible working and the need for flexibility in working. In reading a piece of the Bill and listening to her contribution this morning, I noticed that the one group she did not talk about at all - and if I am wrong, I am open to correction - was the employers. We need employers. We have people crying out for staff in shops and the hospitality sector. Last week, I raised the issue of Ukrainian people who want to take up work but who are told that, if they work more than 20 hours, they will lose their benefits. Let us have a real debate on work and on what it means in this Republic. I say that as a former member of a trade union who is for the rights of workers and who is not in any way against them. Let us have a real debate about what work means and about what kind of a State we want to have. It is about time we did.
My second request for the Leader is to ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, to come to the House for a debate on the new plan for higher education. I welcome his unveiling of the plan yesterday, which will provide a sustainable model for funding higher education in the future. I was amused at Senator Cassells bemoaning a lost decade on the Order of Business yesterday. I remember his own party being in government for a decade, when the country went into freefall, but we will not go back to that time, when Deputy Micheál Martin was a Minister in a government that sunk the country. We will not go back there but it is important.
However, it is important that we have a debate on higher education in the context of the new model unveiled by the Minister yesterday. It is exciting. Not everybody has to go to college but we cannot have barriers to people doing so. That is the important point about yesterday's plan. I will conclude by saying that everybody should be able to access to higher education. Not everybody has to take it up but there should not be barriers to access.
On a point of order, I reassure Senator Buttimer that I actually did refer to employers in my contribution this morning. He may not have heard those names but that is really important. We know that employers and employees have been demanding flexible work arrangements.
That is no problem at all. I second Senator Sherlock's amendment to the Order of Business if it is in order to do so. I will raise with the Leader an issue that has increasingly been raised with me in recent weeks. A lack of availability of prescription drugs is causing customers of many of our Irish pharmacies a lot of concern. It is also causing concern for a number of pharmacists and pharmacies who have contacted me. A number of these pharmacies have described this lack of availability as a crisis. The pharmacies I have spoken to have questioned the HSE's pricing structure, which they say makes this country a less favourable market for pharmacy companies simply because they get paid a higher price in other countries. With the additional problems of Brexit and logistical problems caused by Covid, many customers are receiving calls from their pharmacies telling them that there is a delay with their usual brand of medication. Pharmacies are also ringing customers' GPs to discuss alternative options. Many patients are worried about such changes and, for a number of reasons, some simply cannot take a different brand. We have all listened to reports of the ongoing and unacceptable problems with the availability of hormone replacement therapy medications that are currently affecting the daily lives of many women in this country. I ask the Leader to convene a debate in this Chamber on this significant and growing problem for many patients and their pharmacies. I ask her to invite the Minister for Health to the House to discuss this very important matter further.
I had reason to write to the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle last week with regard to the treatment of my colleague, Senator Keogan, at a recent committee meeting.There is a growing intolerance in this House, which did not exist when I first came in here, to what I would call the alternative voice - the person who is not speaking along the same lines as everybody else, who is not necessarily signed up to the same changes that have taken place in society as everybody else. It is extremely worrying. Yesterday, I saw the Chair of a committee say at the end of a piece by somebody who was at the committee that the contribution would be struck from the record. Nobody can strike the utterances that are made in a parliamentary democracy from any record at any time. It is becoming rather serious. In some cases, I would go as far as to say that it is bullying in the workplace, and that is something that would be of concern to me. I am not about to name names or anything else.
That is fair enough. The Cathaoirleach and Ceann Comhairle are the people who control these Houses, and we need to be careful where we are going.
Yesterday's meeting of the Joint Committee on Health was opportune for the people that were there because everything that was about to happen there was masked, if one likes, by virtue of the fact that we had a magical announcement about the maternity hospital on that morning, so the people before the health committee dropped off the news agenda. The cynic in me says there was something behind it, and I am a little concerned about that too. I will leave it at that, a Chathaoirligh, and I do take note of what you say.
Senator Craughwell did. I want to make sure that people are aware there is a dignity and respect policy within Leinster House that applies to everybody: Members, staff and visitors, and if there are any breaches of that then there are processes around it.
I fully appreciate what you have just said, Chair, about this House not being in command of what happens at committees, let alone joint committees, but I do want to make the point that joint committees cannot be a no-man's land and standards must be upheld by both Houses in joint committees, one way or the other.
What I want to raise today is the possibility that the Leader would organise a substantial debate in the coming weeks, not just an hour-long one, to consider the outcome of the elections in Northern Ireland. We do not know what the outcome will be, but we are clear on one thing, that is, that there are significant structural problems within the political system in Northern Ireland.
I want to draw the House's attention to an article in today's edition of The Irish Timesby a unionist commentator, Newton Emerson. He makes a fair point which we should look at: that the votes of those people who vote for non-aligned groups in Northern Ireland - non-nationalist or non-unionist parties - effectively are devalued because the people whom they elect labour under the disadvantage that they are second-class citizens when it comes to determining who becomes First Minister and deputy First Minister or whether an administration is formed in Northern Ireland at all. That is something we must address.
I would like to have the opportunity to discuss that. Whether the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, or Sinn Féin is the largest party - who knows how it will all end up - nobody in Northern Ireland should have a veto. Nobody should be in a position, in the case of the DUP, to withhold consent to the creation of an administration. Nobody in Sinn Féin should be in a position to procure the suspension of the arrangements on issues such as the Irish language. We need a more robust democracy in Northern Ireland. I would very much appreciate if the Leader could arrange a reflective discussion on the outcome of the Assembly elections when the dust has settled, and the votes have all been counted.
Hear, hear. I am calling for a debate on the World Health Organization pandemic treaty and its implications for Ireland's future freedoms and autonomy in responding to a health crisis, as well as the European Parliament's attitude towards a joint armed force and its implications for our time-honoured neutrality. We need to be talking about the big-picture stuff in this Chamber. We do help local councillors in liaising with the Government and aid them in their service of the people of Ireland. We are happy to do that, but in addition to legislating, we should also be looking into the future and beyond our borders, examining our role in the grand scheme of things so as not to get caught out and off guard. It is important that we speak about these important issues in advance. It is not good enough to hastily edit a weekly schedule to take account of a landmark international shift happening in the next week or so.
It seems increasingly the case that whenever someone tries to shine a light on what is coming down the line, there is a heightened risk of having the truth of his or her claims disputed in this Chamber. Accusations of false information and untruths abound, despite section 425 of the salient rulings of the chair detailing that it has been ruled as disorderly to state that a Member was telling untruths. This is typical of post-2016 western discourse where disinformation and fake news have become labels slapped on just about anything people disagree with, do not want to talk about or simply are not aware of themselves. It cheapens and dilutes the effects of the words and the idea behind them and has rendered them practically useless in combating real propaganda.
If I were to say, for example, that the European Parliament is planning mandatory school training in fake news, or that it is also planning to allow a European joint armed force, which could be deployed overseas, some could hear these sentences and think that sounds like a conspiracy theorist, but they are actually proposals adopted last month by the European conference plenary, which parliaments voted to support on Friday. It is important that we can address these issues in the comprehensive and critical manner befitting the House. I once again ask for a debate on these issues.
I want to acknowledge and speak a little about the conference that is happening in Tullamore on Saturday on agriculture and rural development. It is important for us to come together. A great list of speakers will be involved. We also have the principal from Mountbellew Agricultural College, Edna Curley, who will speak with groups about what is important in how we develop communities, towns and villages. What is phenomenal about Mountbellew is that it is now part of the Atlantic Technological University. It is our only third-level campus in the constituency of Roscommon-East Galway. It is crucial that this conference and discussion supports how we are going to develop communities in rural areas.
I thank my colleagues. I probably have not been to an agricultural conference before, but I very much look forward to it this weekend, in particular to raise the flag for the horticultural growers in Ireland, who probably have not had much presence on the Fine Gael agricultural committee in the past ten years. There are some 450 delegates and some good speakers, and it will be an opportunity for us to re-engage with the farming community this weekend.
Senator Keogan asked for a debate on the WHO treaty. That is no problem. I will organise it in the next couple of weeks. To reassure her, certain things get brought up at European Council meetings and by the Commission, but we always have our veto, so we are sovereign in what we decide to do. Notwithstanding anything Senator McDowell has said, that there should not be a veto in certain fora, we have a veto at the European Council and the European Commission and we will not be afraid to use it.
Senator McDowell asked for a reflective debate in the coming weeks on the outcome of the Assembly election in Northern Ireland. I will arrange that, notwithstanding the sensitivities and the fact that we all want to make sure we get an Assembly up and running. We do not want to do anything to interfere with that but, by all accounts, it would be a very interesting debate. I wish everybody well who is going up for election today.
Senator Craughwell talked about acknowledging the diversity of views. We would all do this. The diversity of views is vital. It is why we are here. If every single one of us came into this Chamber every day and said exactly the same thing and we all agreed with each other, we would be bored off our rockers.I would be. I say that as someone who has at times fought with her own fingernails. I am definitely able to have a fight with people I do not agree with. The most important thing we can do is find dignity in people's opposing views and treat them with respect. It makes the final decisions we make in our Parliament, in this House and in the Dáil, more worthwhile and worthy when we accept and listen to the diversity of views and take on board other people's ideas. We need to be tolerant of each other and treat each other with respect. That goes every way, not just one way.
Senator Wall seconded the amendment to the Order of Business, which I am very happy to accept. He also asked for a debate on prescription drugs and HRT in particular. I have been investigating this for the last couple of weeks because of requests people have made of me. There are the usual explanations about supply chains, Brexit and Ukraine but the light-bulb moment came the other day was when the supply company said it is not getting as much for its product here as it is somewhere else. It is economically more viable for it to go elsewhere. That is the free market economy. However, it calls into question the people who have negotiated our contracts for delivery and that is where we need to focus our ire as customers and our lens as legislators. I will try to organise that debate as soon as I possibly can.
Senator Buttimer asked for a debate on the new higher education plan launched by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science this week. It is welcome. Everybody will have their own views but after many years of talking about it and the Cassells report and so on, we are finally getting a bit of movement. It is most rewarding to see the hundreds of millions of euro going into it. That is to be debated.
I also acknowledge what Senator Buttimer said about unemployment. As a former Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, but more importantly, after seeing what the pandemic did to nearly everybody who was working, I feared we were going to have tens of thousands of casualties arising from the pandemic. Thankfully, there are fewer people unemployed today than before the pandemic, which is wonderful news. There are also more job vacancies in Ireland today than there are people on the unemployment register so we are still not doing something right and a debate would be very worthwhile. Flexibility or anything else we can do to encourage anybody who wants to work is worth debating so I will organise that. We will debate that with the Minister but I also look forward to debating Senator Sherlock's legislation.
I thank Senator Murphy for raising the issue of Robert Pether, his wife Desree, their son Flynn and their young daughter. I am not as frustrated about this as the Senator because he is far closer to the case than I am but I do speak to Desree on a nearly weekly basis, if not more than that. I am utterly dismayed at the lack of a response from the Australian ambassadors, and I say that respectfully. They say they are not willing to engage with us because of the nature of the case, which I understand. If that attitude were reflected in their representing Robert it might give us some solace that somebody is fighting for him but it appears nobody is. Desree and the new solicitor they have acting on their behalf have been very complimentary of our Minister but compliments are not moving the case any further and they are not getting Desree's husband home to her and her children. I will try to arrange a debate and get the Minister for Foreign Affairs, or the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, in here to talk to us about what we can collectively do to raise the awareness of this woman, who is phenomenal because of the stress she is living under and the campaign she is running to bring awareness to her husband's case. I thank the Senator for raising that today.
Senator Warfield brought up the ten-year anniversary of the referendum on children's rights and his wish for the Electoral Commission to look at holding a referendum to extend voting rights to children and young adults aged 16 or over.
Senator McGahon spoke about a virtual driving academy. I had never heard of that before but I think it s a wonderful idea so I will write to the RSA on his behalf.
Senator Crowe asked for a debate on the summer programme in special schools. It is sad that we talk about increasing it every year but we have to do that by encouraging schools to participate in the programme as opposed to telling them they have to. The needs of young children with special needs do not stop needing to be met during the months of July and August. The numbers are stark as only 1,641 children out of 8,018 are getting continuity in that service. It shows how far we have to go. I will ask the Minister for Education for a debate on the matter. She has done a huge amount of work in the last few years to improve the programme but we still have a bit to go so I will organise that debate.
Senator Boyhan talked about the historic visit by our Cathaoirleach to the Ukrainian Parliament next week and wished him well. We will arrange time for him to tell us about what he has learned and the experiences he has had when he comes back. We look forward to that.
Senator Lombard acknowledged us putting on the record of the House and remembering the murders of those 13 gentlemen and one child in Dunmanway 100 years ago.
Senator Malcolm Byrne asked for a debate on human rights and foreign policy. It is not just about what we are seeing on our screens all day, every day, in Ukraine and Belarus but what is happening in countries further away, which may not be talked about so much. We have the luxury in Ireland of thinking we have everything right. There are lots of things that are still wrong but with regard to human rights and dignity we are a hell of a lot more advanced than some of our international neighbours. We will certainly organise that debate.
I accept Senator Sherlock's amendment and look forward to the debate on her Bill.
Senator Gavan talked about the metropolitan plan that was announced in the last number of days. He is not the first person to have raised that this week. We have a large contingent here from his neck of the woods and nobody is happy with it. I was asked for a debate and I have put the request in. There is probably more to it but the Senator is right that the appearance that has been given is not a good one. That must either be addressed or counteracted and an explanation given as to why it is not true. I will bring that to the House as soon as I can. I thank the Senator for raising it.
Senator Clonan talked about an investigation into war crimes, which the resolution we are going to pass in the next few minutes also relates to. He is right. For the last few months we have been talking about humanitarian aid and everything we can do for the effects of the war but we need to start talking about how to help end the war. I do not know whether "sinister" is the right word for the simulation we were exposed to on Monday night. If it was not so serious one would nearly say it was childish and churlish. There is a genuine fear - maybe I am wrong and maybe I am indoctrinated - that these people do not think about things in a normal way, the way everyone else thinks about things, and that it actually could happen. We need to move the narrative on to try to find a space where everybody can stop the egoism of winning the war and start saying we need to stop the war and stop people being murdered while they defend their own home ground. There has to be a way to do that. I will organise that debate on the Ukrainian war outcome as soon as I can.
Senator Kyne opened the debate by raising the case of 17 Ukrainian children. Only in Ireland would we stop a mother who is looking after and communicating on behalf of 17 young children, who are as distressed as they could be when going to school, from getting on a bus. I will contact both Bus Éireann and the Minister for Transport today and try to relieve that issue. The Senator also asked for a debate on the Inland Fisheries Ireland board, which I will organise as soon as I can.
Senator Sherlock has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 19 be taken before No. 1." It has been seconded by Senator Wall and the Leader has indicated that she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is that agreed? Agreed.