Wednesday, 15 June 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022 - Report Stage (resumed) and Final Stage, to be taken at 1.15 p.m. and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 3.45 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair which shall in relation to amendments include only those set down or accepted by the Government; No. 2, Sick Leave Bill 2022 - Second Stage, to be taken at 3.45 p.m. or on the conclusion of No. 1, whichever is the latter, and to conclude after 90 minutes if not previously concluded with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to excess eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, Insurance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022 - Second Stage, to be taken at 5.15 p.m. or on the conclusion of No. 2, whichever is the latter, and to conclude after 75 minutes if not previously concluded with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes, all other Senators not to exceed three minutes and the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate; No. 107(2), Private Members' business, motion regarding the cost of living, to be taken at 6.30 p.m. or on the conclusion of No. 3, whichever is the latter, with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
The month of June, as we know, is Pride month. It is a month in which members of the LGBT community and our supporters, friends, allies and families celebrate and advocate on behalf of our community. It is about building an equal, inclusive and tolerant society where all members of society can play a part and, as Abraham Maslow said, can reach their full potential. I express my disappointment at the decision of RTÉ and Dublin Pride to part ways. I understand the decision taken by Dublin Pride and I seek a debate in Pride month on matters of equality, diversity and inclusivity. Our national broadcaster has a duty to be just that: a national broadcaster. I understand the nature of "Liveline". Many of us in this Chamber will know we have been the subject of much conversation on that programme at times. It is important in any discourse on any radio station to remember that language and words matter. It is not only about what we say; it is also about how we say it and what is implied and meant by the inflections of what we say. That is why it is important that the decision taken by Dublin Pride and the response of RTÉ are reflected upon.
We have come a long way as a society but we in this House, as legislators and leaders, have a critical role to play in bringing people with us. This is Pride month. Many people thought when the country passed marriage equality, the roof was put on the house. That is sadly not the case. I applaud many Members of this House for their support and advocacy. I applaud the Cathaoirleach, along with the Ceann Comhairle, for the roles these Houses have played in making changes that allow for the raising of the Pride flag and for the friendship group of Members of the Parliament. We also have a parliamentary network of staff and Members. I ask RTÉ and Dublin Pride to sit down and work out a means to re-engage in this important month. This month is not only about us as Members. It is about our families, friends and supporters. Pride is important and for as long as we encounter the events of this week and the movement of members of the far right in America to disturb and cause trouble at a Pride event, we will always need Pride. I invite all Members of this House to support the Pride events in Dublin next week. Ní neart go cur le chéile.
I thank Senator Buttimer for his considered thoughts on the unfortunate parting of the ways between Dublin Pride and RTÉ and how we can all do more to ensure that everybody feels, and is, a part of our community and country.
I join Senator Buttimer and all Members of this House in celebrating Pride month and lamenting RTÉ's role in this situation. It would be welcome if the Leader could facilitate a debate on the issue. As we have come out of the pandemic, this is our first Pride month in almost three years during which we can get together and celebrate. In the Dublin Central constituency, we will be celebrating Pride.
The same constituency will tomorrow be celebrating one of the country's most famous literary sons, namely, James Joyce. He may have been born on the south side but he had the good sense to move to the north side. He spent an awful lot of time in my neck of the woods. He lived on Claude Road and St. Peter's Road. He went to school in O'Connell School on the North Circular Road and Belvedere College on Great Denmark Street before he emigrated and wrote his masterpiece, of which we are all very proud. It will be celebrated tomorrow not just in Dublin but all around the world. I congratulate the organisers of the 2022 Bloomsday festival. I do not know if any of my colleagues have had the chance to engage in the festival or to experience any of the wonderful events involved. There is a programme of literature, art, culture and music. It is a joy to celebrate and we should all do so and commend all of those involved.
I also commend the organisers of the Stoneybatter festival, which will take place in Dublin Central this weekend. Stoneybatter is one of the oldest villages in our city. A village with cobblestones and cattle markets, Stoneybatter features in Ulysses, as does Arbour Hill. In particular, the City Arms Hotel on Prussia Street features. The people and businesses of Stoneybatter have got together to organise the festival and the village will be buzzing for this year's celebrations after the pandemic.Stoneybatter will be buzzing with food, music, entertainment, culture and climate action. I encourage anybody who is in the city this weekend to come to Stoneybatter. If they have not had enough excitement and entertainment there, they need to come on Sunday to Mountjoy Square, which is the most perfect of Georgian squares in Dublin city. This Sunday will be Super Soul Sunday in Mountjoy Square and gospel choirs from all over the city will come to lift the square with their gospel singing. It is free of charge from 12 noon to 6.30 p.m. I invite everybody in the city, or anywhere, to come to Dublin Central this weekend to enjoy and celebrate the strong, vibrant and diverse community that is Dublin Central and that makes us all so proud of it.
I spoke to a number of young people last week about many things but especially their plans for the future. Of course, travel featured on many of their lists. It has always been said that the time to do it is when we are young, but I was shocked by how many were planning for their travel to be permanent. Emigration was a consistently common thread across many of these people's plans. One person stated that loads of their mates were in America already and that person would probably end up there. Another said her friend had moved to Samoa where he now has his own house for the price of a student room in Dublin. It is no newsflash that we are losing many of our young professionals to emigration but every time I come face to face with it, there is something so bleak about the reality that, almost exclusively on account of their housing prospects, young Irishmen and Irishwomen see no future for themselves in their own country.
It always makes me think, do we not have a duty to these people? To whom is our allegiance? Is it to the Exchequer, to multinational companies and to faceless overseas trusts generating percentage point profits for people who will never set foot in this country, or is it to our own, the ordinary people of Ireland? They are not seeking inflated real estate portfolios or passive income investments but a roof over their heads and the opportunity to make a life for themselves just as we were all able to do. Ireland is a country of extraordinary wealth. We boast Europe's second largest GDP per capita and the Government spends a staggering €80 billion every year on running the place, yet the basic need of Irish citizens is made unattainable.
Perhaps the phrase "Irish homes for Irish people" sounds a little alt-right to some people, as if meeting the needs of our own country is now extremism, but it is working well for the Danish. Foreigners who have not been resident in Denmark for a period of five years or more may only purchase real estate property if they obtain permission from the Danish Ministry of Justice, which is granted on a case-by-case basis. This rule also applies to companies, associations, public or private institutions, foundations and foreign public authorities. It is very simple. In Denmark, houses are for living in and not for generating profits. If people are local, they can buy. If not, they must become locals first or show they will become so in the next few years. It is not that there are no other people in the queue for Danish houses. It is just that the Danes come first and are put there by their own Government.
I do not expect an about-turn on housing policy in this country. Perhaps this is some food for thought. We ought to examine how a Danish-style system might work in Ireland.
Last week, I attended Ireland's second national biodiversity conference at Dublin Castle. It was greatly encouraging to see the level of engagement from academic experts, voluntary organisations and public servants about how best we can protect, restore and enhance our biodiversity. In his keynote address to the conference, the Taoiseach spoke of a growing realisation that our fortunes as a species and society are inseparable from the fortunes of our natural world. The Taoiseach also commented that biodiversity loss, "will only be successfully tackled as an all-of-government and all-of-society project".
Approximately two thirds of the land of Ireland is farmland. It is critical our farmers play a central role in that all-of-society conversation on how we can reverse biodiversity loss. The Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss is a key part of that conversation. It is vital that members of the public partaking in that assembly hear from farming voices. The simple reality is if we are to turn the tide on the biodiversity crisis, we will only be able to do so with the help of our farmers, who need to be in the room contributing to the conversation on how best we can do that.
We know that biodiversity does not recognise borders or field boundaries, land parcels or herd numbers. That is why it is essential to embrace farming practices that support biodiversity across the whole farm. A whole-farm approach should not confine biodiversity to a small strip or corner of a field. Nor should we do down the road of a split within agriculture whereby one cohort of farmers farms exclusively for nature and another exclusively for food production. They must go hand in hand. Adopting practices that allow biodiversity to flourish across our countryside, across all fields and on all farms, is the direction of travel we must take. I know from the farms I visit, in Laois-Offaly, the constituency in which I live, and further afield, that the vast majority of farmers want to get involved and play their part in our whole-of-society response to biodiversity loss by farming with nature and not against it.
It takes a lot of time and energy to work against nature. As an organic farmer, that is something I have been able to reflect upon in the context of my own farm. Organic farming means working with nature. After nearly ten years of farming organically, I can see the difference in my soil quality and how abundantly our grass grows. I can see the increase in the number and variety of insects and birds on my farm. Again, while we know the benefits for biodiversity that go with organic farming, we simply cannot afford a twin-track approach with only certain cohorts of farmers incentivised to farm for nature. If we are to tackle the biodiversity crisis, we will have to bring all farmers with us as we make the shift to an agricultural model that works for biodiversity instead of against it.
I am being very nice but I take the Cathaoirleach's point.
Anyone familiar with the housing crisis knows that right now, it is getting worse not better. We had a meeting in Limerick the other night, which was packed to the rafters and was attended by Dr. Lorcan Sirr. He also attended the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis a couple of years ago and is not a member of any political party. He made a couple of very salient points, namely, that first-time buyers are being completely squeezed in the marketplace, with a 30% reduction in Dublin, because this Government continues to follow the Fine Gael policy of tax breaks for institutional investors and vulture funds, and the build-to-rent market is squeezing out people. Dr. Sirr also made the point that we are just not doing enough to build local authority homes. Shockingly, not one home was built last year in the Taoiseach's constituency and, even more shocking, in the constituency of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, not one local authority home was built last year. This is the reality.
The heart-breaking stories we heard at that public meeting would chill Members in terms of the level of despair people are feeling. We are on the wrong track and the wrong road. Two years in, this Government is failing on housing and the debacle over the Land Development Agency is just the latest example. We proposed almost 100 amendments to give that agency the powers it needed and they were all rejected by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael people in this Chamber. It is time for an urgent debate on housing, which we are calling for.
The second issue is even more serious. Yesterday, I attended with others the meeting organised by Dóchas on what is happening in the Horn of Africa. I will give the House a couple of statistics. One person is dying from hunger every 48 seconds at present. Some 61% of people living in south Sudan do not have enough to eat and 350,000 children could die in Somalia in the coming months. This is the stark reality of another famine. We saw this happen ten years ago and we thought it would never happen again.It is happening again. Of course, it is being compounded by the war in Ukraine.
Dóchas very clearly asked for a significant increase in overseas development aid, ODA, funding. It asked for €233 million. I hope that, on an all-party basis, we can agree and passionately argue with Government for that funding to be included in this year's budget. We have to see justice for these people. It was truly shocking to watch videos from ten years ago and hear former President Mary Robinson talk about how there is no dignity in seeing a mother watch her child die. We are back there now. It was encouraging to see people from number of parties present at the event yesterday. I ask that we all work as hard as we can to ensure that there is a significant increase in the allowance for ODA in this year's budget to tackle this crisis. We must also use our seat on the UN Security Council to engage with other countries to ensure that we do not face another disaster. We lost 250,000 people in 2011. The world cannot let that happen again.
Following on from Senator Buttimer's comments, I also want to reference what has been happening over the past week and the incidents that have occurred during Pride month. I thought I would be standing up here during Pride month, as an out member of the LGBT community, to wish people a happy Pride and to list all of the things that we still have to do. I expected to put on my glad rags and head to the Pride march, which is a standard thing that we do as members of the community every year. I did not expect to be standing up to speak on the back of what has happened over the past week and the rhetoric that has been posted online, and in the context of our national broadcaster, RTÉ, having its partnership with Dublin Pride severed for "the recent unacceptable triggering and extremely harmful anti-trans discussions that have been given a platform on Joe Duffy's Liveline on RTÉ Radio 1", and for stoking "the flames of anti-trans rhetoric". I know that Dublin Pride, like many in our community, has spent a long time working to increase positive representation of LGBTQ+ people on TV, radio and online. Some of the events of the past week have set us back immeasurably. It is most unfortunate, particularly for the trans community.
Perhaps as an antidote to that, I might take a moment to reflect on how this week I went to the launch of Trans Equality Together, a coalition between the Trans Equality Network Ireland, TENI, BeLonG To, LGBT Ireland and a plethora of organisations and allies that have come together seeking to support the trans community and looking for equality for the community in areas such as healthcare, housing, well-being, socioeconomic status and all of the other things that need to be done beyond popping the roof on the house of marriage equality and gender recognition legislation, as Senator Buttimer put it. I do not wish to take away from the extremely significant impact that both of those pieces of legislation had, but there is still a lot more work to do for that community.
Tiernan Arnup, a member of AMACH! LGBT is on record as stating: "Trans people do not exist separately to the rest of the country. We are woven into the fabric of it." I do not want to use the word "discussion" to refer to recent events because it creates a politeness that is not deserved. The broadcast that was aired for three days running meant that our community had to listen to people saying that they were not debating the existence of trans people or their lives. They were debating their existence because they were saying that trans people do not exist in the way that they do exist. That is debating people's existence and their lives. It is unacceptable that our national broadcaster allowed that to go out on air, unfettered and, quite frankly, unchallenged. Some serious claims were made during the broadcast and really damaging characterisations were made of our community, our trans friends and trans families. It is not acceptable or good enough hat that community has to listen to that during Pride month. It is a disservice to our national public broadcasting that it was allowed on air. I want to stand up today in solidarity with our community, during this Pride month. I hope that everyone in this House will stand in solidarity with our community. As Senator Buttimer said, I ask people to join in us Dublin Pride. Members can march with whatever group that they want to march. We will all be there with our different groups. We must show extreme solidarity at this moment in time with the trans community. It is very marginalised and has been so let down by the State. It has also been let down by our national broadcaster and that is not acceptable.
Our Constitution declares that the Government of our Republic is a matter for the Oireachtas, which consists of Dáil Éireann, Seanad Éireann and Uachtarán na hÉireann. I do not claim to be a constitutional expert, but there is a clear delineation of powers and responsibilities between these three components. To put it in layman's terms, ours is first and foremost a parliamentary democracy and political power resides in Leinster House. The Government of the day is responsible for drawing up a budget and implementing its programme in a manner that best benefits the entire community. The Government is held to account by the Opposition and has to answer to the people at regular intervals of not more than five years. The Constitution provides a far more limited role for the President. Many presidential powers may only be exercised on the advice of Government. The President has functions in the summoning or dissolving the Dáil, signing legislation into law, appointing judges or referring Bills to the Supreme Court. The President also acts as supreme commander of the Defence Forces.
-----is also Head of State, a role that is basically symbolic and ceremonial. There is an important convention which, by and large, has been observed since we adopted our Constitution, whereby none of the three branches of the Oireachtas are critical of each other. We all remember the one case in which that convention was breached. It led to the resignation of a President and a Government Minister. In recent months, the Presidency has become involved in controversy, something that no one will welcome.
I cannot and will not address any of these individual controversies. However, I would like to make a suggestion as to how they can be avoided in future. In the first instance, the President and the Government should create a presidential liaison office. This would be helpful to both the Executive and the President.
Second, a constitutional committee should be established to examine and provide clarification in respect of the functions and powers of the President.
There are grey areas that could eventually lead to a constitutional crisis, if left unaddressed.
Third, the President could make more use of his powers to convene and address the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Constitution makes clear provision for this. It would be a proper forum for an open exchange of views and topics which are of concern to the President.
At present, it would seem that a President - in practice, at least - can comment on the record of endeavours of the Government, but these comments may not be debated in Parliament or publicly challenged by the Government or the Opposition. I offer these thoughts and suggestions in a positive spirit. Our Constitution, with necessary amendments, has stood us in good stead since 1937. It is an important document. We have seen how close and vulnerable even the most powerful democracies are to subversion and anarchy. We should act on this issue now in order to avoid further trouble.
I would like to raise an issue with the Deputy Leader. I suggest that we ask the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications to come to the House to discuss the matter. It concerns the tariff for electricity that is being exported by ordinary private individuals. They are not getting paid. The Minister said that such a tariff would be introduced in May or June. There does not seem to be any sign of the tariff being paid to ordinary people. Many people, both contractors and private individuals, have contacted me about the issue. All other sectors are being paid a tariff. The majority of solar and wind farms receive a tariff based on how much energy they can produce. The banks give loans based on the amount of energy they can produce. I do not see why homeowners should not be properly and adequately paid for the excess energy that they produce. A tariff would act as an incentive because it would then be in homeowners' own interests to limit the amount of electricity that they are using to put more into the grid.
I wish to raise the issue of the poor level of broadband service provision on Main Street, Castlebar. I am sure the Deputy Leader is aware of the issue. A number of businesses have contacted me about it. As the Deputy Leader will be aware, there are market leaders, including Vaughan Shoes and Stauntons Pharmacy, and many other businesses based on the street. Quite a lot of business is done online. It is very important that these businesses have good broadband service provision. In some cases, the broadband speed is only 15 Mbps, when it can be up to 1,000 Mbps. It is important that the issue be addressed. I know of one business in the centre of Castlebar that has been waiting a month to get a broadband connection. These businesses will have to move out of the centre and into the rural part of the town if this issue is not addressed.I ask that the Deputy Leader bring to the attention of the Minister the poor levels of service, particularly with Eir, with which there are great problems. People are waiting quite a long time to get an answer from it and are left hanging on the phone. What is happening is not adequate at all.
I join with Senator O'Sullivan, whose comments were well made and showed perfect timing. In an article by Sorcha Pollak in The Irish Timeson 13 June 2022 entitled "Five Ukrainian soldiers with 'significant trauma-related injuries' airlifted to Dublin", a statement from a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson was included. That spokesperson said Ireland was "not politically or morally neutral in the face of Russia's appalling attack against Ukraine". The article continues:
"Ireland has a long-standing policy of military neutrality, meaning that we do not participate in military alliances or mutual defence arrangements," he told The Irish Times. However, the treatment of injured Ukrainian combatants in Ireland reflects the State's "continuing commitment to work closely with our EU partners to provide humanitarian and other assistance to the people of Ukraine."
In making this statement, the Department has reiterated a falsehood that is directly in contravention of its own stated position on foreign policy. Let me once again refer to Ireland's only White Paper on foreign policy, which was published by the Department of Foreign Affairs not in 1922 or between 1939 and 1945, during the Second World War, but in 1995. Perhaps those in the Department have forgotten about it and perhaps it is time to remind them. Paragraph 4.5 of chapter 4 of Challenges and Opportunities Abroad: Ireland's White Paper on Foreign Policy, which is the section on international security, states:
In the strict sense of international law and practice, neutrality and its attendant rights and duties do not exist in peacetime; they arise only during a state of war. Neutrality represents an attitude of impartiality adopted by a state towards the participants in a conflict and recognised as such by the belligerents. Such an attitude creates certain rights and duties between the neutral state and the belligerents which commence at the outbreak of war and end with its cessation.
Has Ireland's position changed since this White Paper was published? If so, who changed it and where in the Oireachtas was it discussed? What is this nonsense about political or moral neutrality and where does it come from? Where can I find either position defined in international law? The statement refers to military neutrality and states that we do not participate in military alliances. Two points need to be made here. The first is that neutrality and military non-alignment are polar opposites. As a nation, are we neutral or non-aligned? If we are truly militarily non-aligned, why have we not joined the other 120 non-aligned countries in the world?
It is time for an informed national debate on Ireland's status. It is time for an honest debate. I call on the Cathaoirleach, someone who has led on many things, including the debate we had here yesterday, to bring such a debate to Seanad Éireann, the place where it must start. At the beginning of the term of this Seanad, when we were elected in 2020, I asked for a debate on neutrality. I ask for it again today. The citizens of this country deserve no less than an honest, clear and informed debate to allow a national discussion on Ireland's future military status to commence. We constantly hear this nonsense about political or moral neutrality and military non-alignment. The Irish Timesran a poll about people's attitude to neutrality. The people of Ireland do not know what is required of the State to be truly neutral or truly militarily non-aligned. I ask the Cathaoirleach to work with the Leader to bring experts to this House who will debate with its Members what it truly means for Ireland to be neutral or militarily non-aligned. Let us inform the debate before a citizens' assembly is put in place so that people are not talking about something that has not really been debated since the foundation of the State.
There is provision in Standing Orders for reports by Oireachtas committees to be debated in the House with the chair of the relevant committee and the relevant Minister. If Members wish to use that process, they are more than welcome to do so. That is one of the approaches we could take in this House.
I wish to raise a couple of issues. The first involves a word of warning to businesses. Chambers of commerce are promoting companies seeking contracts with businesses in respect of health and safety coverage. However, when you read the small print, you see that there is no cooling-off period to allow people to pull out of those contracts. I just offer a word of warning people and advise them to look at these contracts. Something needs to be inserted into consumer legislation to ensure this is not allowed because a significant number of businesses have been left facing significant costs after signing up for long contracts and not getting what it says on the tin.
My second point relates to petrol forecourts throughout the country. People might not be aware of this but Revenue has taken over the licensing of petrol stations. It has written to every station in the country regarding dangerous substances licences. Hundreds of stations around the country are going to close because they are not in a position to comply with this new provision. We will see the local stations in many communities closing. We are looking at increases in energy prices and are encouraging people to stay off the road but we will now see closures and many communities will be left without a local forecourt, green diesel will not be available for the farming community and kerosene will not be available for people's heating systems in the winter. We will actually force people to travel further on the roads.
It will also result in significant losses for small businesses throughout the country. The owners have an asset that will become redundant. They will lose footfall to their businesses and will face significant costs to rehabilitate their tanks. I seek for this provision to be delayed for one year in order to allow these businesses to trade. Some sort of compensation package needs to be provided for those businesses that have to close or to incur significant costs to comply with this provision. This matter has not really been in the public domain and the reason I am putting it out there is because I am one of those business owners. We face a significant loss of earnings and the loss of an asset that is worth tens of thousands to us. We also have to go to the expense of dealing with our underground tanks but will get no compensation for it. As I have said, a significant number of businesses around the country are going to close and communities will be left without access to fuel, including kerosene for heating and green diesel for rural farming communities.
Along with some colleagues, I visited Shannon Airport on Monday. We had a very good engagement with the new chair of the board, Conal Henry. What is being done in Shannon is very impressive. The new security features, including new scanners, that have been installed during the Covid pandemic have made a great difference. Despite this, 87% of the aviation traffic in and out of this country goes through Dublin Airport. The Minister has acknowledged that we need a new aviation policy. I propose that we have a debate with the Minister in the Seanad on such a policy because I believe there is a lot of expertise in the area of transport and aviation in this Chamber and that such a debate would be useful. I propose that we have that debate on the matter.
As the Deputy Leader will know, the INTO is carrying out pre-budget lobbying today. It has a number of very valid issues and concerns, including the need to tackle the chronic underfunding of primary schools. Primary schools receive a standard capitation grant of €183. This is in contrast to the grant of €316 paid to post-primary schools.This is a concern as they have a large number of day-to-day running costs they need to cover. With the costs associated with inflation and the costs of products rising, this puts more pressure on the scarce resources within our schools. We know the huge importance that capitation plays in the funding of primary schools. I ask that the Minister would come to the House to make a statement on capitation grants and on the inflation costs in the delivery of services within our schools and on the school building programme. It is a serious concern at the moment across all sectors in relation to construction as well. I look forward to that debate in the future.
I thank all Members who contributed to the Order of Business today. Senator Buttimer started this morning by speaking about this month being Pride month and the Senator referred specifically to the recent controversy around Dublin Pride and RTÉ. I share the Senator's concern that Pride has pulled away from RTÉ. It is regrettable that this parting of ways has happened. I would certainly hope that both parties can get around the table to try to find a way forward. That particular debate was quite tense at times with lots of different viewpoints articulated. It is regrettable the Dublin Pride felt it did not want to continue in that partnership. Hopefully they can get back to working together in the interests of promoting positive LGBTQI+ conversations and issues.
The Senator requested a debate around equality, diversity and inclusivity. I have made that request to the Leader's office and we will try to get that organised if we can for this month. I am aware that Senator Hoey has asked for the same debate. That request has gone in.
Senator Fitzpatrick also spoke about Pride celebrations and drew our attention to the Bloomsday Festival and the upcoming Stoneybatter Festival. The Senator has encouraged all Senators to try to attend or participate in those festivals to support those local areas.
Senator Keogan spoke this morning about immigration and young people, particularly in the context of the housing issue. The Senator asked that we would look at a Danish-style housing model as a potential solution. I would say to the Senator that we have a very ambitious housing plan in the State, with a record €20 billion investment to build 300,000 homes in the next four years. It will be a record level of investment in house building. I appreciate that there are difficulties and challenges. Coming out of the past two years there were periods when construction was closed down. Following the pandemic, we now have the war in Ukraine and we have supply chain issues. All of these are contributing to the difficulties in housing provision. No one individual or party or Government could have foreseen that these particular instances such as a pandemic or a war in Europe would have happened. They are impacting, of course, on housing. The numbers are, however, going in the right direction.
The Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, spoke about her attendance at the second national biodiversity conference in Dublin Castle. The Minister of State spoke about the need to work with farming communities and farm families. Two thirds of the land in the State is farmland. The Minister of State spoke about the need to farm with nature as opposed to against it. There were some very good comments in that regard. The Minister of State also spoke about the citizens' assembly, which is being chaired by Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin from Mayo. It is doing fantastic work in getting the views of our citizens for how we as a country can meet this biodiversity challenge.
Senator Gavan spoke about the President's comments. I will not stray into that issue too much, given the Cathaoirleach's direction. There are significant housing programmes taking place in the State. There are, of course, challenges. There was a decade of under-building. There have been two years when construction was not operational. There are now issues around supply chains, costs of building materials, and labour shortages, which we are trying to do deal with. Nobody can dispute that the level of investment in housing by this Government is unprecedented, such as never before seen in the State. We will see those numbers start to turn. I am aware that people are in difficulties and are facing challenges. Of course we acknowledge that. We are trying to turn those numbers around in the right direction.
Senator Gavan also spoke about the famine in Somalia and the potential for 380,000 children to lose their lives. It is shocking that in this day and age, with the abundance of food waste in every country, there would be children and parents dealing with that. It is just horrific. I commend Dóchas on its work in highlighting this. I urge the Government to do whatever it can to try to support with financial aid and to try to deal with that issue. There are so many humanitarian crises, and we can get caught up in certain ones, but this crisis is as important as the next. It is very important to highlight that.
Senator Hoey spoke about Pride month and the need to have that inclusive conversation. I concur with the Senator's remark. I am aware that it has been a difficult period for people. There has been a lot of vitriol online, on the radio and in the print media. There is a very tense conversation taking place that is not helpful to anybody. I would hope that these matters can be resolved, that we can move forward together, and that we can get back to what Pride month is about, which is a supportive and inclusive society.
Senator O' Sullivan spoke around the President's comments. I will be more general in my reply to the Senator's remarks while not focusing specifically on the recent issue. More generally, I would agree completely with the Senator's remarks on the role of the Executive, the Dáil, the Seanad, the Office of the President, and whoever holds that office at any particular time. There are very specific roles and for very good reason. There should be separation between those arms of the State. The long-standing tradition to not stray into each other's territory or to criticise one another is for the benefit of society and of the State. Questions have been raised as to whether this was maintained in recent times.
Senator Burke spoke this morning on two issues. I do not have a specific reply on the ESB issue the Senator has raised. It would probably be appropriate to raise it as a Commencement Matter since it is quite a specific question. If that is not sufficient we can, of course, look for a debate. I am aware of the issues around broadband access and particularly in Mayo and in Castlebar, and the ongoing difficulties there. The Senator referred to Eir, which has had long-running issues around customer service. I had to deal with that on a personal level and I would choose to never have to deal with that again, and would look elsewhere. The customer service has been so poor. It is an ongoing issue for people in the town. It is not just in Castlebar: it is also in other parts of the State. One would believe there would be proper access to broadband in this day and age in the main street of a county town. I have noted the Senator's comments.
Senator Craughwell spoke about the recent move by Ukrainian soldiers to get hospital treatment here in Ireland. The Senator also specifically requested a debate on neutrality. That debate has been secured and we are just working out a date. That debate has been agreed to and we will have the debate on neutrality in the Chamber at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Conway spoke about Shannon Airport, as he often does, and he pointed once again, as he often has, to the vast majority of air traffic going in and out of Dublin Airport, and the need to rebalance this across the regions. The Senator made the valid point that we have other airports in the State such as Cork, Shannon, and Ireland West Airport Knock, that can certainly have more capacity to assist in getting passengers in and out of the country. It is certainly a topic to be debated and I will request that debate in the context of aviation policy, at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Kyne spoke about the INTO and its lobbying on running costs in schools. We are all getting the feedback in every part of the country that there is a lot of pressure on schools now due to the rising costs of everything, be it insurance, energy and just keeping the doors open. I have no doubt that the Minister for Education will engage constructively with the teachers' unions to make sure that these costs can be met in a reasonable way and to make sure that schools are not under such extensive pressure for long periods. It will be an ongoing issue with regard to the cost of living and the cost of fuel and energy in general. We are all feeling this across the State. The education sector is no different. The Minister for Education is acutely aware of that issue and challenge for students and is dealing with that. That concludes the Order of Business.