Thursday, 16 June 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re arrangements for the sitting of the House on Tuesday, 21 June, Wednesday, 22 June and Thursday, 23 June 2022, without debate; No. 2, Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2022 – All Stages to be taken at 1.15 p.m. and to conclude at 3.15 p.m. and the proceedings on Second Stage shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 58 minutes with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed eight minutes, all Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate, Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 3.15 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 Government; No. 3, motion regarding the Earlier Signature of the Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2022, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2 without debate; No. 4, Planning and Development (Built Heritage Protection) Bill 2022 - Second Stage, to be taken at 3.15 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.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. At this time of the year we are regularly approached and briefed by non-governmental organisations, unions and so forth. Two very important engagements took place yesterday. One was with the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO. We all know the sacrifices teachers and young people made during the pandemic. One of the legacies of the pandemic should not only be a properly funded health system but also a properly funded education system. The INTO made a number of very solid proposals on class sizes and on the restoration of posts of responsibility. A moratorium was introduced in 2010 in respect of posts of responsibility and the appointment of new such posts within schools. We all know how important administration work is these days because it takes up so much of all of our time. It is high time that moratorium was lifted and that a proper restoration takes place of the necessary supports that schools need. The INTO also has some very interesting proposals in the whole area of mental health. I call, therefore, for a debate on education at some stage, if possible this side of the summer recess.
There was also a very important briefing in the audiovisual room which many colleagues attended yesterday afternoon given by the Neurological Alliance of Ireland on the need for nurses, whether that is for multiple sclerosis, MS, or Parkinson's disease, and for those nurses to be available to advise people on living as full and as healthy a life as possible. There is a very significant deficit in respect of the number of nurses in those areas that are available on the ground to visit people at home, to take phone calls and so on. A very powerful presentation was made by a 22-year-old girl who suffers from epilepsy on how such a resource would make a very significant difference to her being able to live a proper, independent life. Some 30 nurses are being asked for but more than 100 are needed.We need to make a significant dent in that and in the upcoming budget I sincerely hope we see specific funding for neurology nurses so they can carry out there jobs.
As a final point, it is great news University Hospital Limerick is going to have a proper diabetic clinic with properly-trained staff to carry out the necessary work. A campaign by diabetes activists in the mid-west has been taking place for some time to have appropriate staff appointed. That has happened and it is great news.
I wish everybody a happy Bloomsday. It is a very important day in Dublin, Ireland and indeed across the world now. The final life-affirming words are not "... yes I said yes I will Yes" but in fact "Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921". The most Dublin of Dublin novels was actually written on the Continent and as we know Joyce was very deliberately European and a very proud European. He lived on mainland Europe for most of his life and was very much influenced by European writers and indeed European politics.
The question of what it means to be European is a theme that is going to be explored during the Irish presidency of the Council of Europe. On that note, it was great to see the bureau of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, CLARA, meeting in Tralee in the Cathaoirleach's home county earlier this week at the invitation of Councillor Jimmy Moloney, Mayor of Kerry County Council and head of the Irish delegation to the CLARA. I had the opportunity to join the attendees on Tuesday night and can attest to both the hospitality and the organisational skills of Kerry County Council and the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG. Well done to all involved. The 24 international visitors went back with a very positive view of Ireland, and of course, of Kerry.
I wish to raise an issue relating to J1 visas. I never had the opportunity to avail of one myself but younger brothers and sisters did and I have always been jealous of that fact. It is the chance of a lifetime for young students. They are able to go to America to work, live, experience another culture, have fun and of course to explore and travel there. There are different ways of getting the J1 visa but many students opt to go through USIT. A quote on its website says: "It can be difficult trying to get all the paperwork before you go, but USIT take all the hassle out and keep things smooth". That is absolutely not happening this year. It is a disgrace to hear what young people are being subjected to. One young person I know has changed flights four times, has paid accommodation and still does not have that because when they had their appointment with the US Embassy, USIT had not sent on the paperwork. The visa was subsequently refused. I am not blaming the American Embassy for that because obviously that is completely outside our jurisdiction but there are many hundreds of young people who have been completely let down by USIT. We need to call it out and we need to be in contact with the company. Maybe that is something the Deputy Leader can do because at this stage summer has started for the students.
Briefly, I have a brief point to make on the short hop zones for commuter areas such as Newbridge. I have raised this before. It concerns the price differential between Newbridge and Sallins. The price is €3.60 from Sallins and €10.60 from Newbridge just to go in to Heuston Station. When we are talking about euro per kilometre or indeed the amount of minutes spent it is obviously ridiculous. It costs the same to go to Mullingar or Carlow as it does to go to Newbridge. We need to have a Leap cap, a fare cap and we also need a situation where the short hop zone is extended, or indeed a medium hop zone.
I wish to raise a number of issues. This week the Women's Aid Annual Impact Report 2021 was published. I find the contents of it shocking. Its findings are deeply disturbing. We have a persistent and profound problem in Ireland with violence against women. I will quote some of the statistics. According to Women's Aid, 33,831 disclosures of abuse were made during 2021. This represents a deterioration on previous years and may be associated in some way with Covid. It means there were 100 cases of domestic abuse every day. Every 15 minutes a domestic abuse incident takes place. That is 24-7 and 365 days a year. In 28,096 cases the targets of this abuse are women. That is one per hour. Every hour, 24-7, a woman is abused or targeted in some way in this Republic. There were 5,735 cases of violence against children. That also represents approximately one per case per hour on a 24-7 basis. I am sorry, it is one assault on a woman every 15 minutes and one assault on a child every hour. We have a major problem with the way we treat women and children. We have a history of it going back to the mother and baby homes. We treat our citizens with contempt. This is something I will return to next week in relation to the broader issue of abuse and harm to children in this country. We also had more than 400 disclosure of rape to Women's Aid during 2021. That is, every single day in this Republic a woman is raped in the home, which is supposed to be a place of safety - for those who have homes.
In that context, I return to a subject I also find very disturbing. That is the broader societal context. It has come to my attention that the Defence Forces, under the Defence Act 1954, continue to investigate and try cases of sex assault. I got a clarification that in sex assault cases where both the perpetrator and the victim are Defence Forces members and the alleged offence occurred on military property, under the Defence Act 1954, the perpetrator is usually tried by court martial. That is completely unacceptable. That is akin to the system in which the church dealt internally with its own abusers and rapists of children. We cannot allow the Defence Forces to investigate themselves in that matter. I am aware of many cases of serious sex assaults on both male and female members where the charges are broken down into lesser section 168 charges under the Defence Act and these are minor administrative charges. As a consequence, they are masking and concealing the actual level of the problem within the Defence Forces. This also has the effect of sex offenders in our armed forces then not being subject to the provisions of the Sex Offenders Act. I would therefore like a debate in the House. I would like to know how many sex offenders tried by court martial in our Defence Forces over the last 22 years since I drew attention to this have been notified to the sex offenders register because I am also aware of rapists in the Army who were not properly dealt with and then went on to rape women in the broader community.
The Defence Forces purport to defend the State against external and internal aggression. If it is not a safe place for 51% of the population it is not fit for that purpose. We really need to draw attention to this. In conclusion, I raised 22 years ago that all matters of sexual assault within our Army, Naval Service and Air Corps should be investigated by An Garda Síochána. I raised this 22 years ago and it has not changed. They are still doing it internally and still covering it up. This is not just a case of "me too", but a case of "we too". In the context of the broader societal problem and in the specific case of the Defence Forces, each of us has a responsibility to bring pressure to bear on the Minister for Defence, the Secretary General of the Department and the General Staff to straighten up and fly right in this regard.
I agree fully with Senator Clonan's remarks and especially his closing ones. I assure him of my own support for his work in the House in highlighting, and I hope addressing, those issues. I want to again ask the Government to move the Bill on holding a referendum that would extend the vote to Irish citizens outside the State in presidential elections. Members will know this is a long-term call that has been made since well before my time in the Oireachtas, and it has been led by civic society in the North but also by diaspora groups and networks throughout the world. It is also a programme for Government commitment, and the Government said just a number of months ago that it planned to hold that referendum before its term ends. If it is serious about that, I encourage it to introduce this legislation, whether in this House or the Lower House. There is nothing negative or regressive about enfranchising citizens with the most basic of entitlements, and that is an entitlement to vote for the President.
I always find it deeply frustrating when, every St. Patrick's Day, Government representatives travel the world and rightly acknowledge our diaspora and encourage further investment from diaspora networks around the world, yet will not enfranchise them with that vote, when they have the ability and the opportunity to do so. I again call for that legislation to be moved.
Alongside that, given the pandemic and everything else, we have not had statements from the Minister with responsibility for the diaspora in this House in this Seanad. I believe it would be timely, right and appropriate that we would hear about supports for our diaspora community, particularly older and more vulnerable Irish citizens, as communities emerge from isolation and from the pandemic. Diaspora networks and community centres are vital in the work they do and we support them. I would like to hear what the Government is doing in that regard.
In closing, I call for statements on Palestine. I attended a very hard-hitting briefing hosted by Senator Frances Black yesterday, with Hagai El-Ad, who is the executive director of B’Tselem, Israel's premier human rights organisation, and Raji Sourani, who is a director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend all of it. We say very often in regard to Palestine and the apartheid regime that is being implemented against Palestinians that we could not help but be moved, but there is a part of me that is tired of being moved about this and tired of having to extend my sympathies and solidarity. As individual parliamentarians but, more importantly, collectively, as an Oireachtas, and in particular with the Government’s position on the UN Security Council and the limited time it has left, we want to hear from the Minister for Foreign Affairs what the Government is doing to support Palestinians who are suffering and enduring apartheid. We want to hear what it is doing to challenge the brutality of the Israeli regime on the world stage, when it is so flagrantly implementing that apartheid regime and so flagrantly in breach of international law and all accepted conventions. I call for that and I have no doubt Senator Black will elaborate on that.
I sympathise with the colleagues and friends of Jo Cox, whose sixth anniversary is today. A quote from Jo Cox before she was tragically and brutally murdered by a fascist was, “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” We all know and understand that whipping up fear and hate in a political context can lead to tragic consequences. On the sixth anniversary of her death, when the British Government is trying to do something very similar to distract from parties during lockdown, it is important that we remember her.
I want to raise a very important issue that is affecting a number of people in Dublin city, which is the lack of taxis at night-time and in the evening. It is estimated there are 20% fewer taxis on the road and reports are coming back of people being unable to get taxis at night when walking home in very dangerous conditions, with women walking home by themselves because they have not been able to get access to taxis at night-time. Taxis are an essential part of our public transport and public service infrastructure. At the time of the fuel crisis, we gave hauliers €100 per week to help with fuel costs under the emergency support scheme for hauliers. We have no scheme in place for the rising costs associated with driving taxis to the extent that we see many people leaving the industry. This is having a knock-on effect on our nightlife within Dublin city. I would also like to see the extension of 24-hour buses and bus routes. In lieu of that, taxis are an essential public service for people getting home safely at night. It is reaching crisis point. Something is going to happen to somebody in the evening or the night-time because of the lack of taxis on our roads. I call for an emergency debate to see what the Government can do to financially support taxi drivers coming back into operation with their taxis, thereby ensuring that people are able to get home safely in the evening.
I thank the Oireachtas Members who attended a briefing I hosted yesterday with two of the most experienced and courageous human rights defenders in Israel and Palestine. I was delighted to see so many people there. We had Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. They both travelled to Ireland to speak about the ongoing Israeli assault on Palestinian human rights and Israel’s criminal practice of apartheid. I want to give huge thanks to Trócaire and Christian Aid for making their trip possible and for their diligent work on this issue.
Both men spoke powerfully about their vision of Ireland as a global icon of resistance to colonialism and as a champion of human rights. The identification between the Irish and Palestinian people is potent and beautiful. However, they did not mince their words. Because of Ireland’s history and its professed position as an advocate for the rights of small nations, particularly on the UN Security Council, they expect a lot from us. I really believe that we are letting them down. The silence is deafening.
They spoke about their desire to see the occupied territories Bill pass and for Ireland to use its position on the world stage to describe Israeli human rights abuses adequately and accurately. While last year’s motion condemning the de facto annexation of Palestinian territory was a welcome first step, it is time for Ireland to follow the established consensus of the international human rights community and recognise Israel as an apartheid state.
We have had this conversation before but Government figures remain elusive and defensive. They are keenly aware that the Government’s muted approach to this issue is sharply out of step with Irish public opinion. The Government might need to keep an eye on public opinion because it is not listening to the people on this issue. The Taoiseach, when pressed, declared that it was “unhelpful” to use the term "apartheid". This was roundly rebutted by Hagai El-Ad, who said it is actually unhelpful for the Taoiseach to undermine the experiences of Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid and the work of human rights organisations on these issues. I ask the Taoiseach, with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, whether they will consider this use of language in light of this critique from one of Israel’s most eminent human rights experts and the growing research produced by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B’Tselem that unequivocally proves the existence of apartheid in Israel-Palestine.
A crime against humanity is being committed in plain sight, enabled by a conspiracy of silence among Western nations. Will Ireland lead on this issue and live up to our history and our stated values, or will we ignore the Palestinian people when they ask us to stand up for their rights and their humanity? This is a moral and political test that we cannot afford to fail. The Government must listen to the Irish people going forward or it will be in trouble. An anti-apartheid campaign will happen but the Government is not listening to what the people are saying.
I agree with everything Senator Black has just said. We cannot be strong enough on that issue. I am sorry I was not able to be there yesterday but I wholeheartedly support what has been said in regard to Palestine. Particularly in Ireland, we have a groundswell of support that needs to be recognised and activated in terms of Government policy as well.
Today is Bloomsday. I come from Dún Laoghaire and it and Blackrock, Sandycove and Glasthule are areas that are intimately associated not just with James Joyce himself, as a Blackrock native, but also with Ulysses, the first scene of which takes place in the Martello tower in Sandycove. Today, the streets of Glasthule will be closed down for Cavistons and other businesses in the area like the Wilton Gallery, Mitchell & Son, 64 Wine and the restaurants to put on great festivities and readings from Ulysses. We will probably see it on the news this evening. These are part of the fantastic community spirit that is commemorating Joyce and his work, which is of world renown. I will be going to Glasthule to continue those celebrations with people there.
It is worth recognising not just that James Joyce has achieved this global iconic status as a writer and that Ulysses has achieved that status, but that there are communities in that part of south-east Dublin that really took this novel - which is really not that digestible, we have to be honest about it, and has a particular tone - to their hearts. Every year, on 16 June, Leopold Bloom's birthday, they commemorate that novel and the scenes that take place in it in and out of the sea around Sandycove and Glasthule. They deserve our congratulations for their civic spirit but also for the commemoration of that great piece of art, that great novel that is Ulysses, on this day, Bloomsday.
On a more serious note, the recent horrific attack and mass murder of people in St. Francis Catholic Church in the Owo district of Ondo in Nigeria should horrify us all. We must have a debate in this House about the persecution of people for their faith worldwide, in particular the horrifying attacks that are going on against Christians in Nigeria.
I took part in a very interesting discourse of politicians from around Europe the other evening with Bishop Jude Arogundade of that diocese of Ondo in Nigeria, Fr. Joseph Bature of Maiduguri and Fr. Remigius Ihyula of Makurdi, all of which are areas where Christians are under attack. It will be known that the Bishop of Ondo noted that the first two bishops of his diocese where Irish. He had responded to President Higgins's recent comments on the atrocity and he very much welcomed President Higgins doing as he did before and condemning the atrocity, in particular the fact it took place in a place of worship. What the President had to say in the same statement about not scapegoating pastoral peoples who are victims of climate change was not so well received.
I understand that. The Cathaoirleach might stop the clock for a moment as I want to make a point of order on that. I have no intention of criticising the President and I have no intention of seeking to hold the President to account, but it must be possible to say in this House on occasion “agree with this” or “don't agree with that”. If we lose the power to do that, we lose the power to be Senators. We need to talk about that. I do not mind the Cathaoirleach interrupting because I know he does it in the best of faith and he has his job to do. We must get clarity on that point at some point. I am not going to launch into an attack on President Higgins but if we cannot mention something in passing, even to enlighten and give context, while The Irish Timescan, it makes a nonsense of what we are about. We really do need to get to the bottom of that.
In fairness, the Senator makes a valid point. There was a discussion yesterday on a different issue regarding the President, of which I am sure the Senator is aware. That was in the newspapers and Members did discuss it and they were careful in their comments. I am only asking the Senator to also be careful.
I understand. I will bí cúramach. However, we probably need to get the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight, CPPO, to decide how we interpret Standing Orders in a way that is rational so we do not have unnecessary obstacles here to reasonable context giving.
I will work on that from my side. To return to my point, part of the President's comment was very welcome and part of his comment the bishop described as far-fetched and unhelpful. When I spoke to the bishop, he was very generous about President Higgins and said “I do not really blame him.” However, the Nigerian Government is pushing an analysis that seeks to portray these atrocities as happening in the context of disputes between tribal people over land. As the bishop pointed out, every month Catholic priests are being kidnapped and it costs a fortune to ransom them back. It is not happening to imams. There are, of course, issues that are fite fuaite. Frequently, disputes over land resources and disputes between tribes cotton on to religious differences but, at the end of the day, and here is the point, if we describe people as victims as well as perpetrators of atrocities in the same breath, then our words lose the power to condemn and bring about change.
The bishop also said he would be only too delighted if the President and his advisers wanted to get into some kind of dialogue where the context could be explained. I can tell the House that Christian leaders in Nigeria are very worried that the Government in that country is looking the other way and perhaps even facilitating armed extremist Muslim terrorists, who may have land interests but are also motivated by religious hatred. That issue needs to be opened up, just as much as we open up the horrors that are going on in Ukraine. Just because it is Africa, just because it is further away, we must be not be ignorant, vague or bland in our assessment of what is going on.
In conclusion, I will say this. Our President makes fantastic comments from time to time and he did so again on housing, but when he or, indeed, his predecessor, Mrs. McAleese, gets it wrong, there needs to be something better coming from the press office than a doubling down. If an error is pointed out in good faith, it is great leadership if we show the capacity to say “Yes, I did not get that quite right and I am willing to amend my hand.” Our President does well. He would do even better if he was capable of doing that from time to time and, indeed, so would all of us.
I conclude my intervention by asking for a debate. This is not having a go at anybody. I want a debate about what is happening in Nigeria. I want a debate about the persecution of Christian and other religious minorities but, in particular, the horrors of what is going on in Nigeria at the moment must be ventilated. We must get our embassies putting pressure on the Nigerian Government to talk honestly about what is going on and to hear our representations about what it needs to do in order to protect religious freedom and protect people from tribes that are out to ravage them, burn people and kill people in their churches.
Yesterday, I attended Mental Health Reform’s online publication of a report, My LGBTI+ Voice Matters. It is an extensive piece of research which looks at the experiences of the gay, lesbian and trans community within our mental health services. One statistic that certainly stands out is that 19% of those who access mental health services in Ireland identify as lesbian, gay or trans, so one in five of our mental health service users identify as LGBT. The report makes a number of recommendations around improving mental health services but in particular around building the LGBT capacity of those who work within mental health service providers. It is a very useful report. This being Pride month, the whole question of mental health supports for those who are members of the LGBT community is important. I recommend that the report would contribute towards that broader debate around how we engage with our mental health services.
The Schools of Sanctuary programme has been operating in Ireland since 2017. It is where schools all around the island of Ireland are identified as safe and welcoming environments, particularly for those from different ethnic minorities. It talks about the value of inclusion. The newest school to be designated as a School of Sanctuary, I am glad to say, is Creagh College in Gorey, which amazingly now has 49 nationalities in the school and, apart from Irish and English, 23 languages are spoken among the students. I hope other schools take up the opportunity to become a School of Sanctuary. Further, I would like to extend congratulations to the principal, Paul Glynn, the deputy principal, Janet Wallace, and all the students and staff who have achieved that title of School of Sanctuary for Creagh College. Again, we should encourage as many schools as possible around the country to seek to become Schools of Sanctuary.
I rise today to raise two issues. They are two good news stories. One is the fact that the first women's shed is going to hold its meeting in Limerick tonight. It is based in the Dooradoyle-Raheen area. I would like to wish the committee of Emma, Jackie, Mary, Margaurette, Jackie, Sinead and Eimear all the very best. It started out as a women's walking group and its main aim is physical, mental and social health. Some things they have on offer so far include yoga, baking, home DIY, car maintenance, IT, crochet, mindfulness, music and art. There are many more strings to their bow. I wish them all the best. It is being held in Garryowen Rugby club at 7 p.m. tonight. It is open to women of all ages. I welcome the fact that so many women's sheds are opening up around the country. There is a very successful one in Newport as well and many others around the country. The Deise women's shed in Waterford is a very successful one. I wish all the women's sheds, and the men's sheds, all the best for the future.
I also wish Róisín Ní Riain all the best. She is a paralympian from Limerick. So far in 2022, she has won two medals in Madeira. She was one of the youngest swimmers in her race. She will become a household name for swimming and the Paralympics. I wish her all the best for the rest of the competition. We are very proud of her having won two medals to date.
I support Senator Mullen's call for a debate about Nigeria and what is happening there in terms of the persecution of people of the Catholic faith. I do not make any reference to the President. Religious freedom is something we all value and we need to have a discussion about it.
I also congratulate all of those people, in particular in Sandycove, in my local authority area of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, who will be celebrating Bloomsday in a very big way. I saw some people on Molesworth Street wearing their boaters and so on, getting on a bus, possibly heading out that way. I celebrate the commemoration of Bloomsday.
Senator Malcolm Byrne may say that, but I will not have a go like that. I congratulate the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, on the official opening yesterday of the brand new air traffic control tower in Dublin Airport. It was built due to a very significant investment by the State to facilitate the new runway, which will open in August. I congratulate the IAA on that.
Perhaps the Deputy Leader would write to the Minister for Transport to ask exactly what is going on with the national car test, NCT, service. I went in today just to look for an appointment and the three closest to me are in Deansgrange on 24 November, Greenhills on 17 October and Northpoint on 30 November. That is not acceptable. I know it might be possible to find a slot that has come in at midnight or 1 a.m., but the idea that the three busiest centres in the country only have appointment dates in October and November when we are asking people to drive cars that are tested and certified as being safe is not okay. I appreciate there have been backlogs due to Covid but I would like the Deputy Leader to write to the Minister for Transport to ask exactly what is going on.
Perhaps we could have a debate on road safety generally given that the crashes, accidents and fatality numbers are much higher this year. Equally, if we want people to drive safely, we also want people to drive in safe cars and they need to be tested to make sure that they are operating appropriately and safely. If it is taking that long, people's insurance is possibly compromised if they are driving a car that has not been passed. Technically, cars are not supposed to be on the road with an NCT that is out of date. Perhaps a blind eye is being turned to that, but we do need to have a system that is fit for purpose. That is very important. A car is a deadly weapon if used incorrectly and it is important that people are driving cars that are safe. It is important that people can avail of a system when they need it, not in five months' time.
I hope we do have a debate on the last point Senator Horkan made, namely, road safety. There is a rising trend in road fatalities in the country. Notwithstanding the fact that cars were off the road for Covid and travel was curtailed, there is a trend of increasing road fatalities and accidents. I support Senator Horkan's call for a debate on the issue. I concur with Senator Horkan and endorse his call for a debate on road safety in this House.
I know you will not let me finish, a Chathaoirligh, but I concur with Senator Mullen that there is a need for the President to retract part of his statement regarding the killings in Nigeria. In the overarching debate, there is a need-----
I accept that, but it is extravagant in itself to link climate change to the murders. There is a need for a debate. I agree with what Senator Mullen says about how we can frame a debate in terms of agreeing or disagreeing. I appreciate that our hands are tied and I will not put you on the spot, a Chathaoirligh.
But I do think we should have a debate on the bigger picture and about the persecution of Christians. We should condemn the killings of all people of faith, regardless of their denomination, across the world.
I rise predominantly to ask the Deputy Leader about an issue that I raised two weeks ago. The leaving certificate, leaving certificate applied and junior certificate classes of 2022 are now in the middle of their exam period but they have not yet got a date for their exam results to be released. That is unacceptable. I accept that there is a piece of work to be done in the month of July for those students who because of Covid cannot sit an exam now. I ask the Deputy Leader if she is aware of the number of students who have not been able to sit the exam or who had to stop doing their exams because of Covid. I am not sure if the figures are available. From talking to students and parents I know that clarity is required on the issuing of the exam results to the students and for the third level institutes they may attend. I believe the provost of Trinity College was on the radio yesterday and asked for clarity to be given. I ask that the Minister for Education would come to the House next week to have a debate on leaving certificate reform and on the issuing of results for leaving certificate 2022.
The Air Accident Investigation Unit report into the fatal crash of Rescue 116 and the loss of four very brave search and rescue operators and the subsequent inquest have laid bare the failures of the contract, oversight and all of the agencies involved. It goes back to when the contract was put together. The absence of aviation expertise in both the Department of Transport and the Irish Coast Guard are serious failings that have yet to be addressed by both agencies.
During the inquest, evidence was given into the problems that occurred that night. One of the problem that occurred was the getting of top cover. As we know, once an aircraft goes beyond a certain distance, it loses communications with the mainland and it requires top cover in order to act as a rebroadcast station. Because the contract and the setting up of the search and rescue for the ten-year period did not mandate the Irish Air Corps to have aircraft available all of the time, frequently, those called out on a search and rescue mission have to search around to get top cover. On the particular night in question, the Air Corps was asked if it had somebody available and it did not. The next port of call was the Royal Air Force, RAF. This lays bare the lack of aviation experience on that particular night. In evidence to the inquest, the Coast Guard said it contacted the RAF and sought a Nimrod to carry out the job of top cover. The Nimrod was taken out of service seven years before that fatal night.There were no Nimrods available to the RAF or to anybody else. This was a serious failing in the evidence that was given to the inquest and it has not been challenged by anybody. The Nimrod was taken out of service between 2010 and 2011. The accident took place in 2017. I will be seeking the records of the telephone calls that were made on that night. However, we are in the middle of a process to set up the next ten-year contract. Two of the recommendations of the Air Accident Investigation Unit were that there would be independent aviation expertise in both the Irish Coast Guard and the Department of Transport. Both of those recommendations have yet to be filled. That is fairly serious and we need to get to it. Do not tell me, a Chathaoirligh, that I have crossed some line again.
I want to highlight that the Battle of Aughrim Visitors' Centre was reopened yesterday. Especially after the lockdown and Covid-19, people have been coming back to visit many of our heritage sites all around the country. Although we can travel now, there is still much to see in our local areas. The Battle of Aughrim was a historic battle that took place in 1691 between Williamites and Jacobites. In this visitors' centre, people can see what it was like. It was the single largest loss of Irish life on Irish soil in a battle. When you go to this visitors' centre you can understand what it was like. You can see the costumes the soldiers wore. You can feel the muskets. You can see the experience of men and families in that period of time. Aughrim is just a few miles outside of Ballinasloe.
This visitors' centre is an experience for families to enjoy our past, to see what life was like and to understand what life was like back in the 1690s. It is also an experience to understand how history shapes our life. It shapes our life right now. I studied history for my leaving certificate. I am thinking again of all the leaving certificate students who will be finishing their exams in the next few days. I also took history as my degree subject. History is important to understanding decisions made at a diplomatic level and at a military level and the strategies that are used and to understand how we plan ahead for own society. This is an uncertain time, particularly when we see what is happening at a European level. When it comes to diplomacy, global politics and international relations, understanding the past has never been as important as it is today.
I thank all Members who contributed to the Order of Business. Senator Conway kicked off discussions and he spoke about some of the briefing he attended yesterday. In particular, he referred to the briefing held by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO. I think many Members of this House attended it to hear some of its requests which, from my perspective, were very reasonable. It is looking to reduce class size numbers by two, which would bring us in line with other European countries. It made a novel, interesting recommendation or suggestion that there would be ringfenced funding of €20 per child for mental health services. I think we would all agree that this is vitally important. I know the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and her Department have been engaging with the INTO. They are looking seriously at these requests from the INTO. I thank the INTO for the facilitation yesterday in briefing Members of both Houses. It is important, particularly when there is so much going on, that Members have that opportunity to focus in on an issue. These briefings are of huge benefit to Members. I thank the organisation for that opportunity yesterday.
Senator O’Loughlin started her contribution by acknowledging that today is Bloomsday, as did many other Members of this House. It is an important day, in particular some parts of the country where there are strong links to that festival. She also spoke about the ongoing issues with USIT and with US visas for students. Many of us will have received representations on that issue. Many students are missing out on flights and accommodation. They have made plans in the summer that they have not been able to fulfil because of the difficulties in obtaining their visas.
The Senator also spoke about the short-hop zone and the difference in the price of a ticket, that is, between getting a ticket in Newbridge and getting a ticket in Sallins to travel into Dublin city. The cost for Newbridge is €10.60, whereas for Sallins, it is €3.60. This is a considerable difference. The Senator has advocated for that short-hop zone to be extended and that we look at the cost of fares from different locations and to make sure they are fair and equitable. It is reasonable to acknowledge that since April, there has been a 20% reduction in all public transport fares and 50% for students aged between 18 to 22. We have seen an increase in passengers on public transport, which welcome for many reasons. It is great to see that public transport is being utilised when it becomes more affordable.
Senator Clonan spoke on two important issues, one of which was the Women’s Aid report, which presented really shocking statistics. It has been discussed by other Members as well. We have a significant problem when it comes to violence against women. There are commitments from Government and from the Minister for Justice to tackle this issue in a serious way. We have a long way to go. We fall well short of our commitments under the Istanbul Convention in terms of refuge places. This is not just a case of having a safe space to go. There are financial issues as well when people try to leave the home. There are issues around children. There are legal issues as well, such as supports to go through the court system. There is a whole suite of supports needed in order to assist predominately women who are fleeing domestic violence situations. We must also acknowledge some men also experience violence and, of course children, do as well. It is an epidemic in this country and we have to get to grips with it. We are a long way behind some of our European neighbours.
The Senator also spoke about the ongoing issues of sexual offences and the way they are dealt with in the Defence Forces. I agree with his comments that it is wholly unsatisfactory that the organisation would investigate itself in matters of this nature. I do not have an answer for the Senator on how many of those who have been accused of sexual offences have gone through courts martial and how many of those have ended up on sex offenders' register. It is a specific question, so I suggest the Senator table a Commencement matter to try to elicit a response from the Department on that. We might take it from there to see if further investigations are required through a more substantial debate in the House. However, given that the question is specific, it would be suitable for a Commencement matter.
As he has often done, Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke about the referendum presidential elections. It is a commitment in the programme for Government to hold a referendum to extend the franchise for voting to citizens beyond the island in presidential elections. I do not have a time yet as to when the legislation will progress. It is separate from the Electoral Commission that is dealing with other aspects of elections in the country. I do note the Senator comments. He has also asked for statements from the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora. I think that he is correct in saying there have not been statements in the House on that issue, so we will request that debate but it is unlikely to happen before the summer recess. As Members will see from our schedule, even for next week, it is extremely busy with the huge number of Bills that we must try to pass in the coming weeks. We might look for that debate in the autumn session.
The Senator also requested statements on Palestine. Again, it may not be possible to facilitate that in the next four weeks, but certainly we can facilitate that debate in the autumn session.
Senator Moynihan drew the attention of the House to the fact that today is the sixth anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox, MP, in England. It is a sad day for politics, not just in England and in the UK, but on this island too. There are increasing tensions. It is becoming a more difficult job to be a public representative. We have to watch out for that here as well. I do not think we are in that space, but we could be in that space at some point if we are not careful. We want to ensure there is respectful, dignified and safe political discourse on the island.
The Senator also spoke about the lack of taxis in Dublin city, which is a problem. Some figures suggest that we are down by 20% on pre-Covid-19 levels. My colleague, Deputy McAuliffe, has called for a commission to look into this, to work with taxi drivers and to see if we can put together a better deal for drivers to encourage them back into the sector. That is a sensible solution. However, I take on board the Senator's comments. It is a particular concern for women who are trying to get home at night. If they do not have a taxi, it could be the difference between them going out and participating in the night-time economy or not going out.
Senator Black spoke about the briefing yesterday. I apologise that I did not get to it as there was a lot going. It was great that the two individuals were facilitated in having the briefing in the House. This is an issue Senator Black consistently raises on behalf of many groupings. She is always keeping that issue on top of the agenda of the House, which is appreciated by many of us. A debate has been requested on Palestine by a number of Senators. As I said, it is unlikely to happen in the next four weeks, given the demands on the schedule of the House. However, we could look to get that debate at the earliest opportunity in the autumn session in order to keep that issue at the top of the agenda and to give Members an opportunity to contribute to the ongoing debate on that issue.
Senator Ward spoke about that issue. He also spoke about Bloomsday and the unique connection between his area of Dún Laoghaire and Joyce. I concur with Senator's remarks in that regard.
Senator Mullen spoke about a particular issue. Again, I will not stray into commenting on the President’s remarks.However, I take on board what the Senator said more broadly about the need for this House to be able to express its views in a reasonable and coherent way without having any undue blockages to that discourse. He spoke in particular about the loss of life in St. Francis Catholic Church in Nigeria. I send our sympathies to the families and the community there.
Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke on a couple of issues. He referred to the Mental Health Reform report that was published yesterday and the briefing he attended regarding the LGBTQI+ community. He drew our attention to some stark figures, including that 19% of those accessing mental health services identify as members of that community, which is one in five individuals. That is a very strong statistic which shows that there is a great deal of work to be done in that space. He also spoke about the Schools of Sanctuary programme, schools that are operating a very inclusive policy, and drew our attention to Creagh College in Gorey which has just been admitted to that programme. It has been acknowledged as a very inclusive school, now accommodating 49 nationalities and 23 languages. We wish Mr. Paul Glynn and Ms Janet Wallace, the principal and deputy principal, well and congratulate them on that achievement.
Senator Maria Byrne spoke about women's sheds. They are a fantastic initiative. This started with men's sheds and women's sheds are now taking off all around the country. They provide a nice space for people to connect, meet up, have friendships, learn new skills, to contribute to their communities and to try to tackle the ongoing issue of isolation and loneliness, particularly in rural areas. That can be a killer and is devastating for many people. It is a great initiative and it is nice to have some good news being raised on the Order of Business.
Senator Horkan raised road safety and asked for a debate on that issue. We will request that debate. It will likely be held in the autumn session, but we will request it at the earliest opportunity. The Senator is right about the delays with testing. That will have a knock-on impact so it is important to address that. They are unacceptable delays for something that is a requirement to drive a vehicle. The State should be providing that service. There is quite a disparity as well in how long people have to wait across different areas in the country. Some areas are better served than others. There should be uniformity across the board as to how long one should have to wait. I will ask for that debate.
It is all part of the debate to come, when we will discuss that further. Senator Buttimer concurred with the request for the debate. We will request it. I note his comments as well in support of what Senator Mullen said. I understand from the Cathaoirleach that it will be an item for discussion on the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight's agenda at some point, to get clarification for Members on what we can or cannot say or do and how we conduct ourselves.
I take on board the Senator's comment about a debate with the Minister for Education. I am not sure that will be possible for next week as the schedule has already been sent to his group's leader and the Whip for discussion and sign-off by today.
With respect to the Minister and her significant workload, she has done a great deal of work in terms of grant funding and supports for school extensions. Every village, town and county has seen the benefits of education spending in the last two years. There is unprecedented spending in education. In terms of leaving certificate reform, the reforms that are taking place are long overdue so it is great to see them finally being implemented under the Minister for Education. We can see her experience as a teacher coming through in her fantastic work in her role as Minister. However, I take on board the Senator's comments regarding examination results and linking in with colleges and the impact of Covid-19. We did not have this issue previously so it is a new one to deal with. At the centre of it all, of course, should be accommodating students and making sure we facilitate people getting their examinations and getting to college, and not making it any more stressful than it already is for students going through those examinations.
I take on board Senator Craughwell's comments about R116 and the devastating loss of those four people. It is a particular issue for my community in Mayo. It will always be a mark on our community, particularly in Erris and Belmullet, but it definitely impacted the county as well. There are key recommendations to make sure such an incident does not happen again. That might be worth tabling a Commencement matter on at the outset to find out what the plan is for implementing those recommendations for the aviation expertise in those two areas. We certainly do not want to see a repeat of what happened in Blacksod.
Finally, Senator Dolan spoke about the Battle of Aughrim Visitor Centre. It sounds like a fantastic place. I also take on board her comments about the importance of history, knowing our history because it informs the present and future and the importance of that education for lots of people. I wish the visitor centre the best. I hope it has a successful summer season in welcoming visitors to the area.
Before I pose the question of whether the Order of Business is agreed, I welcome to the Visitors Gallery the boys and girls of Kiskeam National School, which is in County Cork. I can tell that from all the jerseys. It is Deputy Michael Moynihan's daughter's class. I welcome the Deputy bringing the boys and girls from Kiskeam.
Some of the greatest people ever came from Kiskeam, as we all know. There is not only the Deputy but also the former Senator, Seán Moylan, who served in this House. He was one of the few Senators to serve in Seanad Éireann while a Minister. He was the Minister for Agriculture in 1957. I have often been to Kiskeam for the Seán Moylan commemoration and was honoured to be there. He was one of our great Senators. When our guests are in the main hall for the Seanad Éireann 100 display they will see his picture there. He was one of the many who led this Seanad and this country. Even though he is a Cork man, his picture is in my office as well, so I invite you to my office to see it. Even the lads with the Cork jerseys will be invited in.