Tuesday, 8 November 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on Housing for All, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude after two hours, 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 eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, time can be shared and the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 2, Private Members' business, Protection of the Native Irish Honey Bee Bill 2021 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 7 p.m. and to adjourn after two hours, if not previously concluded.
I will today deal with something that is very topical. Because of his Roscommon connections, the Deputy Leader will know what I am going to talk about, which is Lough Funshinagh and the serious flooding in south Roscommon. The callows area along the River Shannon has flooded for years and years. Part of Senator Kyne's county in south Galway also floods very badly. I posted a video on social media last week in which I travelled to Clonown in south Roscommon where literally thousands of acres of land are now flooded. The farmers have moved their stock off it. Roscommon County Council had carried out considerable work on the roadways in the area in recent months, raising them in the hope that floods would not interfere with them.
However, I was brought on a bit of a tour by some of the farmers up there and it was extraordinary to see the water cutting off some roads. In light of the forecast that the incessant rain of recent weeks is going to continue, I fear for local communities. Farmers move their cattle off the land in time because everybody understands most of that land is going to flood. The problem we are now going to have is that households and people may be cut off. This creates very significant problems. We had this problem in 2016 and in 2009 so it looks like it is coming every six or seven years. Nobody can say that such flooding is a once in 100 years event anymore.
Perhaps the Deputy Leader could talk to the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, Deputy O'Donovan, who is very aware of the situation, with a view to ensuring that all of the agencies including the OPW, the ESB and everybody else involved with the Shannon can keep the water flowing. When I say that, I do not mean that people downstream in Clare or Limerick should be flooded. However, we sometimes find that gates are not opened in Meelick. Senator Gavan will not want me to flood Limerick but we should ensure that as much water as possible is let go to avoid people in our region being very badly affected again.
With regard to Lough Funshinagh, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, will be meeting with a local group and Oireachtas people next Thursday here in Dublin to see if a way out can be found. All in all, it is just a question of the weather and the incessant rainfall and of the hardship and misfortune being brought to many people, particularly in the Roscommon and Galway region.
I concur with the Senator. As he will be aware, I have a lot of family in that catchment area.This is a tragic situation where people are out of their homes etc. but the Senator has put the case very well so there is no reason for the Chair to make a further intervention on it. I now call Senator Conway to speak on behalf of the Fine Gael grouping.
The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, visited Clare last week and as always, the Minister is always very welcome there. He turned a sod officially on the new Killaloe bridge project, which is badly needed in south-east Clare because there has been traffic congestion there for years. I sincerely hope that we will see the Blake’s Corner project in Ennistimon moving swiftly forward, now that it has overcome the An Bord Pleanála hurdle.
The point about which I was most disappointed with the Minister's visit to Clare was his absolute insistence that the northern distributor road to connect south-east Clare to Limerick has no prospect whatsoever of getting funding in the short, medium, or long term. This is most disappointing because that particular stretch of road is essential for road transport connectivity between south-east Clare, Clare, Limerick and beyond. Some €19 million has already been spent on this project and we already have the first phase of that road between Coonagh Cross to Knockalisheen open. To have this project completely dismissed out of hand is not acceptable. I am looking for a debate here in the House in order that we can tease out this particular issue and find out exactly why the Minister believes that this project will not happen.
Senator Gavan knows as well as I do how important this particular issue is.
This is a project which was committed to by previous governments and my understanding of the programme for Government is very clear, in that any project that has been committed to would proceed. Where has the change happened in the programme for Government? We need clarity on that fairly urgently.
The other issue I wish to raise with the acting Leader is the plight of the farmers on the Burren in County Clare, who essentially are the custodians of the Burren and who have done great work in protecting the environment and in ensuring the flora, the fauna and the unique character of the Burren thrive. That has happened through State support with a particular scheme that has been developed, promoted, designed, and has been ultimately successful in European awards. Dr. Brendan Dunford and other people have worked tirelessly to create a scheme that benefits and promotes farming in the Burren but also conserves that area and ensures that its unique international character is retained. There is the winterage scheme and even the Burren Winterage Weekend festival, which took place two weeks ago and was a phenomenal success.
Now, the farmers are being encouraged to take part in an agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES, which is operating in part of Galway and other areas. This is welcome in its own right but the problem is that it will certainly create a situation where farmers in the Burren will be short-changed. Yes, it will benefit some but it should benefit all. While ACRES is welcome in its own right, why should farmers in the Burren suffer as a result of it? What was wrong with the scheme that this Government and previous governments nominated for and which won international awards? What was wrong with that scheme running in parallel with ACRES?
My call is to have a debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on ACRES in this House in order that we can tease out why he intends to financially disadvantage farmers in the Burren.
On 12 July, in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, I asked the Minister, Deputy Coveney, if the constitutionality of overflights by the RAF had ever been considered by the Cabinet. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, replied that “We do not have overflight arrangements with the RAF, to be clear.”Yesterday afternoon in the House of Commons, following a question from Mr. Ian Paisley Jr., the DUP MP for North Antrim, on the issue of overflights by the RAF in Irish airspace, the relevant Minister stated:
The hon. Gentleman will know, however, that RAF jets have deployed into Irish airspace on occasion. It is for the Irish Government to set out their policy on why, when and how.
Today, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence issued a statement. The statement read:
We do not comment on issues concerning arrangements of national security. The Government's engagement in international security cooperation is aimed at ensuring public safety and is conducted with full respect for Irish sovereign decision-making authority and for Ireland's long-standing policy of military neutrality.
We cannot claim military neutrality if we are depending upon a third country to defend our airspace. The issue of Irish neutrality has long been a question in this House. Many Ministers down through the years have declared how Ireland is neutral. We are militarily aligned with the UK, which is a member of NATO. As a result, our airspace is being protected by NATO aircraft.
Article 15 of our Constitution - of which we are the guardians - states that it is the Houses of the Oireachtas that has the authority to raise armed forces. The question of the RAF overflying our airspace has never come before the Houses of Oireachtas. The matter has not been debated in the Houses. Question about this matter arise today as a result of the statement made in the House of Commons yesterday. This Oireachtas is faced with a dilemma. Has the Minister knowingly misled the joint committee or is he not aware of the agreement that is in place to allow armed RAF aircraft to fly though our airspace? This is a question for the Oireachtas to resolve.
On whether an agreement should have been entered into, the question for the Oireachtas is does our Constitution require that such a decision would come before the Houses and be agreed by them? We cannot claim neutrality while we depend on another country to defend our airspace. We cannot declare neutrality while we are in a military alliance with another country. I respectfully request that the Minister for Defence come before the House to explain to us the dichotomy with which we are faced. Is there an agreement in place? If there is, who put it in place, when was it put in place and why was it put in place? Why was the General Officer Commanding the Air Corps and the director of military aviation informed at the time the agreement was put in place?
This is the most serious constitutional issue that has come before the House in my time, and for as long as I can remember before that. People talk all the time about it taking 800 years to get the Brits out of Ireland. They are not out of Ireland. They are protecting our skies. I understand they are building a ship to protect the cables beneath our waters.
Today I want to raise the issue of the cost-of-living crisis and ask for an urgent debate on the matter. Some of the Members may have seen the survey published by Barnardo's at the end of last week that showed that there were times in the past 12 months when one quarter of families across this State could not feed their children. The same survey also showed that some 41% of households have been consciously cutting back on food spending. A spokesperson for Barnardo's stated:
According to our research the cost-of-living is forcing families to choose between food and other essentials, such as energy costs. Barnardo's has seen a marked increase in demand for its services and is concerned about the toll that soaring bills are having on families' mental health.
I want to highlight how the cost-of-living crisis is hitting our nurses and healthcare workers in particular. Some of them have started to share their stories on social media and I shall quote a couple of them. One says:
I am a nurse. I am awake all night worried. I have three children and work full-time. I don't even have the petrol money to get to work next week. My ESB bill will be out on Monday. I don't even know how I will feed my children. What has this country come to? At this stage I feel like walking away from it all.
A second nurse simply says, "I can't cope with the mounting bills". The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, has repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of staff, particularly at University Hospital Limerick, which continuously has the highest trolley numbers in the country and serious overcrowding issues. The staff are burned out and overwhelmed. Then they go home after a long day or night's work and worry endlessly that they will have no food on the table for their family or money to pay the bills. This is the reality of life for too many front-line workers and nurses in Ireland in 2022.
A cost-of-living crisis rally will take place at City Hall in Limerick on Saturday at 2 p.m. The protest is being organised by the national Cost of Living Coalition, with local involvement from several political and community groups, including Sinn Féin, People Before Profit, the Social Democrats, the Socialist Party, the Postgraduates Students' Union, the Community Action Tenants Union and Limerick Suicide Watch. The Government has not done enough to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. It has even opposed taxing the windfall profits on energy companies, which is an absolutely shameful decision. There are solutions. Germany is the latest country to introduce a temporary price cap on electricity and gas. Sinn Féin has called for less than that and just a temporary cap of five months on electricity to reduce the cost of electricity over the winter period. Childcare, rents and mortgage interest costs here do not have to be the most expensive in Europe. There are solutions. What we need is a much firmer response from the Government. I call on the people of Limerick to join us at 2 p.m. this Saturday for the cost-of-living crisis rally. Show solidarity, stand up and call very clearly on this Government to do more.
I ask Senators to please forgive me because I must leave this session a little early. I apologise to the Leas-Cathaoirleach and the Deputy Leader.
I am sure that we all saw the chaos generated by the Twitter layoffs at the weekend. Twitter laid off people, potentially unlawfully. The situation is still somewhat unclear, with employees in the Dublin office being let know of their redundancies via email. Some employees, a number of whom I know personally, tweeted that they had no access to their work emails and feared that they had been laid off. There was a really terrible lack of communication regarding the whole matter. I do not need to go into numbers, but we know that 50% of Twitter's employees have been laid off and that offices have been temporarily closed to prevent staff returning. In Ireland, staff are entitled to a 30-day consultation process even if there is no trade union. There is still legal uncertainty about the layoffs. An employee who lost their job at Twitter in Dublin noticed that their password had been changed overnight. In Ireland, it is a requirement that staff are given a formal written letter of redundancy, which Twitter failed to do. There have been conversations on the matter involving the Tánaiste. I would like to know what exactly the Government or the Tánaiste intend to do about this matter. It is no good offering platitudes in the media in respect of this matter. What is needed is firm action.
The second topic I want to discuss is the forthcoming World Cup in Qatar. Amnesty International has stated that significant human rights violations have occurred in Qatar in preparation for the World Cup and has called for workers to be compensated. It is stated that these workers have been housed in poverty-laden communities, often without access to basic amenities like running water, working sewerage infrastructure or electricity. These workers were expected to work for up to 18 hours a day with no day off during the week. It has been reported in The Guardianthat up to 6,500 migrant workers may have died in the country in the decade after it won the right to host the event. That is a serious number of deaths. Amnesty International and other organisations have said that there has been insufficient research into the thousands of deaths of those who worked in construction in the country over the past decade and the contribution that the extreme heat played in this. I need not even go into the perilous situation faced by the LGBT community in Qatar. Under the Qatari regime a cursory Google search will reveal the horrors that members of my community have been subjected to. I shall quote some words by a Nepalese worker who said:
You see, some families are in rented accommodation back home. Now for eight months if we don’t send any money, how would they live there? Their landlord is going to throw them out of their houses now. Right now they are somehow trying to make ends meet... That’s why we are asking the company, ‘it is ok if you don’t give us money, but please send us home’. We asked them to just return our passport and send us back.
It is an extremely serious situation over there. It is important to put on the record while we are gearing up for a global sporting event. It behoves us to be aware of the brutal regime that lies behind this event. Sport should be for all. Alas, it seems that this World Cup event cares little for the thousands of migrant workers who potentially died in its preparation or indeed the LGBTQIA people who are going to be hunted and tormented as happy football revellers descend upon Qatar.
I wish to call for a debate on safety in our sporting stadia, particularly in light of events in Markets Field in Limerick last Friday night. Galway was taking on Waterford in a League of Ireland decider match. The match was held up during the first half because of structural issues. Thankfully gardaí intervened quickly and got all the Waterford supporters out.
In this day and age we should not be having such issues in our stadia. Thankfully there were no injuries in this case. I commend the gardaí and personnel on the ground. This is quite worrying. I have since spoken to supporters of other League of Ireland clubs and they have concerns about other facilities across the country. It is timely that we have a debate in the House on the safety code and standards within our stadia. It would be timely for the relevant committee on tourism, culture, arts, sports and media to have an update from the FAI on all the stadia within its brief and stadia of clubs within the League of Ireland. I do not think this is good enough. It is important that we act.
It is timely that we would have a review of clubs in all sporting disciplines. We have had enough tragedies over the years with sporting facilities and other structural facilities. We do not need more. This is a call to act. I ask the Acting Leader and the committee to act. It is timely that we have a review from all sporting facilities and organisations as to the status and safety code of all their facilities.
I ask that the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment come to the House and that we have a debate on the world of work, in particular on employment law and the situation regarding our tech industry in light of the appalling behaviour by Twitter over the weekend and especially Mr. Musk and the way he has trampled on the rights of workers. Like Senator Hoey, I wish to express my abhorrence at what has happened to the workers. There was no notification other than by an email. They were locked out of their accounts and out of the place where they work. There was no due process in terms of the 30 days' notice that we have in this country. The rights of the workers were trampled on.
Thankfully, we have robust employment laws which must be adhered to and followed. It is important that we have a debate in the House on the nature of work now and on the tech industry around jobs and job security. I very much welcome that the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and Ministers of State, Deputies Calleary and English, met yesterday with IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland regarding the situation. It is important that we as a House stand in solidarity with the workers. While recognising that Twitter is a global corporation, we do have to recognise that we have robust employment laws in this country.
I also concur with Senator Hoey regarding the World Cup and the awarding of the contract to Qatar, especially given its denial of and complete lack of regard for the rights of people who are of our LGBT community.As we move towards the World Cup I will be calling for a further debate on how sporting events are awarded. It is important that we send a message from the floor of the Seanad to the workers in Twitter in particular.
On 24 July 2020, I said in this Chamber that the decision to postpone bowel and breast cancer screening over the course of that spring and summer until September was a mistake. Even at that early stage, when social media was awash with videos of people dropping dead on the streets of China, falsely attributed to Covid-19, and fear and panic around the unknown severity and mortality rate of the virus gripped the country, the cancelling of essential cancer screening seemed to many to be an ill-judged decision. As time went on and we learned that our worst fears could never be realised, the full reopening of these services should have been swift and decisive but such was not the case. Repeated Government-ordered lockdowns caused further disruption to appointments and check-ups and even when these were available the chilling effect of Government and media fearmongering led to so many people ignoring early warning signs. They were terrified to step outside of their homes to go and receive medical care.
It is important to distinguish that Covid did not cancel cancer appointments but the Government and the HSE did. In his comments as reported last week, the Taoiseach seemed to once again portray the mindset that lockdowns were a thing that just happened as a result of Covid, rather than them being decided on by the Government and enforced by organs of this State, which it leads. The issue was raised directly with the Taoiseach in the Lower House on 31 March 2021 by Deputy Tóibín. The Taoiseach told him in an exchange that should not quickly be forgotten to "get real". It would seem that the reality has finally caught up with us just in time for winter when our healthcare system, the most expensive in Europe by some metrics, struggles and falters every year, even pre-Covid. In the months to come people across the country will receive news that they have cancer and that it could have been treated if it had been caught sooner but it was not. I am not asking that the Taoiseach provide a miracle for those people but perhaps an apology would be appropriate.
I want to take up the last comment. I have enormous respect for Senator Keogan but we went through two difficult years with Covid and the vaccine scepticism of herself and Deputy Tóibín is not acceptable. The vaccines were what got us out of the difficulties we face and there was no effort on the part of the Government to prevent people from going for their necessary treatments. The Senator needs to stop spreading these anti-science and anti-vax messages. It is not acceptable. Our health service responded in the best way it possibly could and vaccines were what saw us through the Covid period.
I want to return to recent weather events. In Wexford we saw a number of events in the past week which were quite serious. In my hometown of Gorey we saw extensive flooding, including the motorway being closed. I saw the impact of what was a mini tornado in Foulksmills and Clongeen. Parts of buildings were demolished, roofs were taken off and damage was done to concrete in a number of houses. Unfortunately we will see more of these extreme weather events and it is important that the exceptional weather payments would be open to those homes and businesses that are impacted. Rather than it being done on an ad hocbasis we will need a clear programme on how to respond to the rising number of these climate-caused weather events.
One of the other implications has been that those who live in Wexford town are under a boil water notice. Some 25,000 people are under a boil water notice in Wexford town due to problems with the water infrastructure in and around the town.I ask again that we have a debate around Irish Water and the necessity to upgrade the water infrastructure around the country.
I ask the Acting Leader to organise a debate around the significant announcement made by the Government last week regarding the forestry programme of €1.3 billion. It is a very positive step forward. We need a debate in any of the Chambers but since the Minister with responsibility for that actual issue is a Member of this Chamber, it should work very swiftly to ensure we have the appropriate time put in place to have a decent debate about the issues of forestry.
The forestry programme has been long-debated and in particular the afforestation programme and the targets which need to be improved. Our targets for the last decade have been appalling to say the least. This programme has been talked about for the last three or four years and is something that is very much welcomed but a debate in the House is required and we need to also put a timeline on a review.
Meeting with people around west Cork over the last two days in particular, it is clear there are issues pertaining to this proposed programme. There are huge issues regarding commercial forestry and whether it is going to be affected or whether it will be adequately promoted. There is a significant grant of nearly €11,000 per hectare over a 20-year period for broadleaf planting while spruce planting is given less than €4,000 over the same period. It is about making sure we get enough commercial forestry into the system itself. A timed review of this is important. There is no point putting a programme in place that will remain there for the next five years and not have a significant uptake in actual afforestation rates. We need to have a timeline so if we do not have that increase in afforestation rates, we can come back and review the programme. I am not saying the programme is wrong but a timed review will give an understanding that it will be amended if it is not working.
I add my endorsement to the comments around the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar and to offer solidarity to the LGBT community as that country should never have gotten the World Cup.
I also raise an issue around another country that is well-known for its human rights violations, namely, Egypt. As somebody who has gone to Egypt, has been in an Egyptian prison, and has spoken to members of families of the thousands of political prisoners who are there, it is unfortunate to see world leaders descend on Sharm el-Sheikh this week in the hope of a good outcome in the Conference of the Parties, COP27, negotiations. We all hope for good outcomes but this is clearly a practice of whitewashing the human rights abuses going on in that country.
Instead of easing the crackdown on civil society, President El-Sisi's dictatorship has actually ramped them up. Ahead of COP27, they have security agents and surveillance, the restricted green zone which was previously always open to the public and to civil society to engage in, has been locked down, and people's phones are being seized and their social media accounts monitored.
I have particular concerns for the Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abdel El-Fattah who is on hunger strike. He has been imprisoned since 2011 and there are huge concerns around his welfare as he embarked on a hunger strike and then a water strike in the past number of days. His family do not know or cannot get confirmation of whether he is even still alive at this point.
It is deeply disappointing that COP27 is being hosted by a country that has such a poor track record in terms of human rights violations and has thousands of political prisoners who are held in the most barbaric conditions. I was inside the prison and met the families. I also had my car followed by the security surveillance. I want to offer solidarity to all of the Egyptian civil society who are not able to make their voices heard during this COP protest.
I raise one of my favourite subjects which is University Hospital Limerick. Some 15,600 people have been waiting on trolleys so far this year. This is the highest number in the country followed by Cork University Hospital which has over 10,000 people on trolleys. I encourage the Minister for Health to come to the Chamber to have a debate on this issue.I want the Minister for Health to come in here for a debate because we are heading into the winter. We need to look at reality and at ways to resolve this issue.
The National Transport Authority currently has a public consultation on proposed cycle routes in 22 counties, but not many people seem to know about it. On the website there are very few submissions because it has not publicly advertised the fact that these routes are there.
In my city of Limerick, I think there are about ten proposed routes. I was looking for something else recently and discovered there was a proposed cycle lane on a street not far from my house. I have had elderly people calling me on the phone. One man whose wife is in a wheelchair asked that if they completely remove his parking, as they propose to do, how he will put his wife in the car. There are many people concerned. It has caused huge upset to some older people.
I am not against cycling. It is a very proactive thing but people did not know these routes were being proposed so no submissions were going in. I think the transport authority and CycleConnects wanted very few submissions so they could go to the local authorities and say they had advertised it and nobody commented. It is inappropriate that they have not run public awareness campaigns in the different areas to highlight this. These should be redrawn and re-advertised to let people know.
Members may know I come from the town of Listowel and am proud to say that. The town has been making headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. A visiting priest - not a regular priest of the parish - made a number of homilies over the weekend in which he stated straightforwardly that people who are homosexual and in same-sex relationships or other things like that were living in sin. I have no problem with him believing that. He is entitled to his opinion. I do not know if it is church dogma. I am not qualified to say that. It is a matter, as far as I am concerned, for the church.
Certain slants in the media would give an opposite impression but he was not speaking for me, people I know or the people of Listowel. Listowel has always been a very open and liberal community. In results of recent referendums on the eighth amendment and equality in marriage, there was a majority in Listowel for those motions. I say to the LGBT community to have no fears of our community in north Kerry. We are with you and we support you.
I spoke in this Chamber a couple of years ago about another incident in the same church, St. Mary's in Listowel. It had to do with the tragic story of a young girl called Peggy McCarthy, who died in labour because she was not admitted to the local health services, basically because she was having a child out of wedlock. It is unbelievable that that happened as recently as 1946. To compound it, the parish priest of the day refused to allow her remains to repose in the church before burial. He locked the gate and put bars and chains on it. That did not stop the local community standing up for their neighbour, breaking down those chains, opening the church and making sure the body was received as was right and proper. My town is a proud and open town. We welcome everybody and condemn nobody. The age of Peggy McCarthy is long over and it is time that other people woke up and realised that.
I raise the issue of accessibility.We have heard quite a lot about it recently and there has rightly been a focus on accessibility, particularly on public transport. I live in an area where we thankfully have the DART. Iarnród Éireann invested a lot of money in putting in new DART bridges that have lifts and make both platforms accessible. However, as often as not, they seem not to work. It is unreasonable that just because someone is a wheelchair user, whether he or she can use the DART is at the whim of whether somebody has fixed that lift. If using Bus Éireann, it is worse. People have to give 24 hours' notice before they get the bus. It is not an acceptable way to proceed.
I recently saw a story posted by an Irish paralympian who travelled for her sport. She is a wheelchair user. She flew with an airline and when she got to her destination - I think it was London - her wheelchair was not to be found. Losing a wheelchair on an aircraft is not like losing a set of golf clubs or a suitcase, however inconvenient or unfortunate that might be for the person who owns them. A wheelchair is part and parcel of the mobility and accessibility of an individual who needs it. They are not cheap either. They cost thousands of euro.
We have to look at this, particularly in a situation where persons have to surrender their means of transport when they get on a plane. We should put in place a mechanism showing that this is not acceptable from airlines, handlers or whoever is responsible. There seems to be a dispute about who is actually responsible. There should be a very clear penalty for companies that do not take seriously the responsibility they have as custodians not just of the passenger but of the passenger's means to leave the airport afterwards. When a person arrives at a destination in an airplane and the wheelchair is not available when he or she gets off the plane, there must be a serious penalty to make a serious public policy statement about how seriously we take that. If there was a proper monetary measure involved, airlines would not be cavalier about this kind of thing. A wheelchair should be the last thing to go on a plane so it is available first thing when the plane lands. We need to take this seriously. We should have a debate about this. We as a House should be putting down a very clear marker that we take mobility and accessibility seriously and that we are willing to put that on the record.
One of the most fundamental freedoms we enjoy as citizens of a democracy is freedom of expression. That is one of the things that marks us out from countries like China and many others that disregard human rights constantly. People are free in our society to express their thoughts freely, subject to the minimum of restrictions. The real test of our tolerance as people is our willingness to accept and take on board that people will express different points of view. It is not the people who trenchantly express points of view that we agree with. That is not where the test of our tolerance and liberalism is. It is when we passionately disagree with those people.
It is in that context that I note the publication of the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022, discussion of which is soon to commence in the Dáil. This is very important legislation. It is important that we scrutinise it carefully. Following recommendations I made directly to the Department of Justice, I am glad to see the inclusion of reasonable contributions not just on literary and scientific matters but also religious discourse. That is very important.
I also note that section 11 provides for a direct recognition of freedom of expression around discussion or criticism of matters related to a protected characteristic, where a contribution to debate or material or behaviour is solely that. Therefore, mere discussion or criticism of matters related to protected characteristics cannot be caught by the legislation. This is important because in striking the balance between freedom of expression and prevention of incitement to hatred in our society, the balance can be got wrong. The UN Assistant Secretary-General for human rights, Ilze Brands Kehris, has pointed to the danger of disinformation being used as a pretext to intimidate and harass critical voices. States sometimes get it wrong when they clone other countries' legislation in this area, where governments respond to public pressure by rushing in with simple solutions for complex problems.
I wish to draw the attention of the public, Chamber and Leader to the fact that Ulster Bank today announced it is going to start freezing accounts. As the Leas-Chathaoirleach will appreciate, Ulster Bank has been a very large and important financial institution in the history of this State, really since the foundation of the State. It is a major thing for a large bank like Ulster Bank to leave. It has been doing so in an organised, measured and slow way but the day is coming where it will freeze accounts. Indeed, on 6 January, it will close 12 branches and another 13 branches on 13 January. Those 25 branches will transfer to Permanent TSB into the future but all the records, files and details relating to those accounts will go back to Ulster Bank headquarters or wherever.
I would like the Leader to schedule a debate, or suggest that we have a discussion, not just about the future of banking in Ireland but in particular, the need to draw attention for all those people who perhaps are not using their Ulster Bank accounts. They may have had one in the past and have moved their account. They may have opened multiple accounts when they were students or attending college at a previous time. Ulster Bank said it will close the accounts and send the details to the last known address. Many people may not have been using those accounts, however, and may have moved addresses since those accounts were in place. Much more focus and attention needs to be brought to the fact that Ulster Bank is finally now freezing and, ultimately, closing many accounts, many of which are inactive. There will still be balances on them, however, and those people are entitled to their money. Therefore, perhaps the Leader could schedule a debate with regard to KBC Bank Ireland but also pertinently, related to Ulster Bank. The time is now coming and it is incumbent on all of us to alert people to be aware that Ulster Bank is leaving the market. They probably know about it but that day is coming soon. It is important that we draw attention to this to allow people to get their money back from this institution before it is gone and, therefore, much harder to retrieve.
I wish to raise today a matter that was recently brought to my attention regarding a little accident. Most of us grew up or have been around rural settings and farmyards. We would have learned our trade driving different machines and started off in tractors and all that sort of stuff. There have been great campaigns on safety with regard to machinery in recent years but there is something that deserves a debate and that we should thrash out.
The licensing system for younger people to drive tractors does not differentiate the type of tractor he or she drives and that is a big issue. We see high-powered tractors now of more than 200 horsepower carrying heavy machinery and heavy loads. Trying to stop some of these machines on the road is nigh on impossible over a short distance. I certainly would not have a problem with a 16-year-old with little experience driving something in a field in a rural or agricultural setting where it would be appropriate. The on-road use of heavy machinery by people who probably have very limited experience deserves consideration, however. In particular, there should be some link to the horsepower of a tractor or machine that somebody with very little experience is able to drive. I would have no problem with that. Heretofore, a person would be driving little Massey Ferguson tractors and whatever else around and it would not pull the socks off them but nowadays, some of these machines are going at 40 km/h, 50 km/h and 60 km/h on the road while carrying behind them some heavy machinery and trailers. It really is something we must tease out. We want to encourage young people into farming. I am certainly not a killjoy in that regard. It would be worthwhile to debate the issue here to see where that might go.
Before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, 46 Irish citizens were studying in university in Ukraine, all of them studying medicine. Naturally, when the war broke out, they all came back to Ireland. One of the provisions introduced by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, quite rightly, was that, because there simply was not space for these 46 people to go straight into medical courses in this country at that time, they were told they could continue their studies online through university in Ukraine but they would be allowed to take part in the practical lessons in a university in Dublin. That way, they were getting the best parts of their education.
Of the 46 students, 43 are now being accommodated with practical lessons in a university in Dublin, and that is great, but there are three students who are not, and they are dentistry students. The other 43 students are all studying medicine and they are able to carry out the practical lessons. However, the university has told three students, two of whom are from County Louth, that it has no space for them at a practical level. That is despite the Minister, Deputy Harris, saying all 46 students or any students in Ukraine would be facilitated. That was the message from the Department, yet the university is going against that message and it is saying it does not have space. There are three dentistry students who are continuing their online studies via their Ukrainian university but who cannot complete their modules. They cannot do the necessary work unless they can carry out practical work as part of their course, which the other 43 students, who are Irish citizens in Ukraine, are able to do. I would greatly appreciate if we could have a wider debate about it or if we could write to the Minister to ask him to use his ministerial powers to ensure all universities are playing ball and are making sure all students are able to take part in the practical lessons, as was designated by the Minister himself.
I thank all Senators for their contributions. There was a wide variety of topics. Senator Murphy spoke about the flooding at Lough Funshinagh. I have great sympathy for all those who have been impacted by the floodwaters there. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, who is responsible for the Office of Public Works, OPW, has been passionate about his concerns about the planning process as well as about objections to projects, including in Lough Funshinagh. The CEO of Roscommon County Council did much work to try to provide a solution and to get works moving. I welcome the fact the Minister of State is to meet with a local group next week. He is always amenable to engaging with people on the issues.
Senator Conway welcomed the Minister, Deputy Ryan's attendance at the opening of the sod turning at Killaloe Bridge. The Senator spoke about the northern distributor road and asked for debate. I will ask for the Minister to attend or perhaps the Minister of State with responsibility for roads, Deputy Naughton, might attend in his place regarding that project and other road projects.
Senator Conway also spoke about the concern about the agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, held a briefing for Members the week before last, so I am sure the Minister would be happy to engage in a Commencement debate, if the Senator were to table one regarding the specific details of the Burren LIFE programme and ACRES.
Senator Craughwell raised issues regarding the constitutionality of RAF flights over this country and whether this has been approved by the Cabinet. I am not privy to that information, but I am sure he can have that raised with the Attorney General or with the Taoiseach. He has also asked for the Minister to come into the House. I suggest this is first a matter for the Oireachtas committee at which he spoke initially. He can liaise with the committee in that regard.
Senator Gavan has spoken about the cost of living and the rally on Saturday. It is important and welcome in this country that we have the ability to protest and to march. Senator Gavan did not, of course, mention any of the range of measures put in place by the Government in the budget last month, some of which are coming through now, including the doubling of child benefit, the autumn double payment, the €500 disability support grant, the €500 lump sum for the working family payment, the €200 lump sum to people living alone, the €500 carer’s grant, the Christmas bonus double payment, as well as the energy payments.We acknowledge that all of this is absolutely necessary because families are under tremendous pressure this year. We encounter people every day of the week who are experiencing difficulties. Thankfully, the Government has been able to respond, and everything we have done has been done because it was necessary. We have been able to do it because we had the financial firepower, from a well-run economy, to be able to put in place these supports for people who are deserving of them.
Senators Hoey and Buttimer referred to the layoffs at Twitter, and Senator Buttimer asked for a debate on the matter. I will certainly ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to come to the House to talk about the state of the tech sector. A number of concerns have been expressed in respect of announcements made in respect of not just Twitter but also Stripe and other companies. The treatment of Twitter employees was not right and was not what we would expect from a world-renowned multinational company. I accept there have been a number of changes in the company management over the past while and, unfortunately, we saw the brunt of that in the form of the layoffs that took place.
Senators also referred to the World Cup in Qatar, an event that is tarnished and should never have been planned for. There has been much talk about the fact the country has had to build many new stadiums, with questions as to whether they will ever be used again, and there is the ongoing question of whether it is right to bring such an event to that part of the world, why it was chosen in the first instance and what impact it will have through lives lost and people injured. As far as I am concerned, it is a tarnished event.
Senator Blaney talked about the events last week at Markets Field in Limerick during the match between Galway United and Waterford Football Club. Thankfully, nobody was seriously injured or worse. I will ask the Minister of State with responsibility for sport to engage with stakeholders in respect of sports infrastructure throughout the country and to come to the House to talk about that.
Senator Keogan argued that Covid did not cancel cancer screenings but rather it was the Government and the HSE that did so. I appreciate there were differing points of view but the Government, through majorities of these Houses, initiated legislation to impose severe restrictions - we accept that - in what we believed to be the national interest. We have to balance the fact that thousands of lives have been saved by virtue of what was done, including among healthcare staff, and that was the reasoning. We had full debates and democratic votes in these Houses in respect of the lockdowns as they happened while we were awaiting the development of vaccines. Unfortunately, judging by reports I have read, it is an international expectation that there will be delayed cancer diagnoses, which is deeply regrettable for all families who have been impacted. I reiterate we had democratic votes in these Houses on the policies of lockdown and vaccines and we were protecting front-line healthcare staff, who were under tremendous pressure throughout the country, from Covid.
Senator Malcolm Byrne talked about the impact of the flooding in Gorey and called for a clear programme of supports. The Red Cross, along with the Department of Social Protection, has initiated measures to support businesses that have been impacted in any of these floods and it has not been found wanting.
Senator Lombard raised the announcement of the €1.3 billion forestry programme, which was welcome news. I will invite the Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, Senator Hackett, to address the House in respect of this exciting programme of supports for the sector. We have historically low levels of planting in this country, and while we have seen some difficulties over recent years with regard to licensing, this will give a new impetus to planting.
Senator Boylan also referred to upcoming events in Qatar and to human rights issues in Egypt.I think there were a number of areas, whether Iran, Egypt or Qatar, on which we could invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs to discuss issues of human rights. I will do that.
Senator Maria Byrne spoke about University Hospital Limerick and the unfortunate ongoing issues regarding patients on trolleys. I know that management were before the Joint Committee on Health where she, Senators Conway and Gavan and others would have questioned them on issues and the management in the hospital that were impacting on people and the quality of care. Senator Maria Byrne also raised proposed cycle lanes. We have come across this in other areas as well. Everyone says they support cycling infrastructure which is the right thing to do but it has an impact on narrow streets in terms of removing parking and through traffic. Reducing roads down to one lane is something that one has to bring people with one on. One must iron out the difficulties that arise and it is not easy. We have come across that in Salthill in Galway in the past. Senators talked about Limerick and I am sure it has arisen and will arise in other areas as well.
Senator O'Sullivan gave a very passionate defence of the town of Listowel and the happenings last week regarding the visiting priest. The Senator spoke of the fact that people in Listowel have indicated their support for the repeal of the eighth amendment and marriage equality. He raised the case of Peggy McCarthy which I read about over the weekend. One would have thought it was something of the past. It was a shameful episode. I am always a great believer, as the Bible says, to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. It is from Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12. So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. Leviticus 19:18 says love your neighbour as yourself.
Senator Ward talked about accessibility issues. The concerns about lifts might be something to raise directly with Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann. The majority of us who do not need to use a wheelchair in our daily lives probably will never know the challenges that people face. For those who have to use a wheelchair every day who find these obstacles to daily travel, it is not good enough. I agree there needs to be a debate on that issue and I will ask for that debate.
Senator Mullen spoke about the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022. He has already been involved in initiating some changes to that legislation. I look forward to the debate on that Bill when it comes to the House.
Senator Horkan mentioned Ulster Bank and the freezing of accounts from today and he called for a debate on the future of banking. It is a challenge now because there are a number of account holders who have not closed their accounts. Ulster Bank indicated a long time ago that it was leaving the country. There should be a debate on the future of banking and I hope that people are given the time and space to ensure that they have alternative arrangements for their accounts. Senator Horkan raised valid points about people's last address, which they might not have updated, and that they do not want a cheque from a closed account arriving at an address at which they are no longer living. That is important.
Senator Davitt spoke about machinery and the driving age for tractors. It is something that I have thought about regarding very high horsepower tractors on our roads. I might ask the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, to come in and talk about farm safety.
Senator McGahon talked about a specific issue involving three students of dentistry who have been told there is no space for practical work. He might raise that as a Commencement matter with the Minister, Deputy Harris, or directly. I will engage with him or write to him. He would have more accurate details of the issue. I will send a copy of the transcript to the Minister and ask him to investigate this as a matter of urgency.
I thank the Acting Leader, Senator Kyne, for his comprehensive responses and, indeed, for displaying an in-depth knowledge of scripture as well. It is another facet of his knowledge that we were unaware of previously.