Seanad debates

Tuesday, 30 January 2024

1:00 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Before I call on the Leader to announce the business of the day, we will all have been deeply saddened and shocked to hear of the sudden death of our former colleague and friend, a former Member of both the Dáil and the Seanad and of Roscommon County Council, the late John Connor, which Members will have heard about over the weekend. As Members will know, John was involved in a road traffic accident on Saturday and sadly passed away afterwards. A native of County Roscommon, he was an outstanding public servant for the people of Roscommon, whom he served for over a quarter of a century. First elected to Dáil Éireann in the 1981 general election for the Roscommon-East Galway constituency, he went on to serve in this House in 1983, having been nominated to the Seventeenth Seanad by the then Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald. He was subsequently elected to the agricultural panel in the following Seanad general election. John was re-elected to the Dáil in the 1989 general election, winning back his seat and heading the poll in the Roscommon constituency. He served in Dáil Éireann until 1997 and then served in this House from 1997 until 2002. During this period, he was also elected to Roscommon County Council in 1999, thereby serving his constituents at both national and local level. As Members will know, he retired from public life, leaving this House in 2002 and the local authority in 2009.

As the Taoiseach said at the weekend, "John had an unwavering commitment to the people of his area and brought a considerable expertise to politics at local and national level." We will all agree with that. As those Members who knew him will be aware, he was a man of keen intellect and a wonderful orator who was very interested in international and European affairs and matters and served on many overseas trips as a Member of the Oireachtas. He was always deeply rooted in agriculture, in his local area and in rural Ireland. If you canvassed him on a Seanad campaign, as some Members of this House did, you certainly got interrogated and questioned not about the weather but about policy, the future of Ireland and your own future as a candidate.He was a very popular man on all sides of the House. We lament his passing. At this very sad time, we think of his family. On my own behalf and on behalf of the Senators, I express our deepest condolences and sympathy to his sisters, Margaret and Anne, his brothers-in-law, Gerry and Brendan, his nephews and all his cousins, relatives, neighbours and friends from the parliamentary community and beyond.

I call on the Acting Leader to outline the Order of Business.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I would like to express my own deepest sympathy to the family of John Connor, and indeed, to the people of Roscommon, who were very well represented by John. I also express my sympathy to the Fine Gael Party. When you lose someone who is such a stalwart and a source of huge wisdom and experience for everybody, it is a huge loss. Following the Order of Business, we will be moving a motion of sympathy.

The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Matters Relating to the Complaints Processes in the Defence Forces, to be taken at 3.15 p.m. and to conclude at 4.45 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and time may be shared, and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 2, Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2024 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 5 p.m., with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and time may be shared, and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.

Photo of Lorraine Clifford-LeeLorraine Clifford-Lee (Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, I would also like to express my sympathies to the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party, to the wider party and to the family, friends and community of John Connor. It must be an awful shock to lose somebody so suddenly like that, so they have our sympathies.

I would like to welcome the deal that was backed by the DUP overnight. It was great to wake up to such news after having such high hopes over recent weeks that a deal would finally be arrived at. It was great to wake up and hear this good news. We would all love to see the Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland being re-established. We have to remember that all these MLAs were elected in May 2022 and they, like all of us, stood for election to represent their communities, see change, see progress and deliver. They have been hamstrung over the past almost two years in relation to that, so I look forward to seeing them getting to work, as I am sure they will do. The absence of the Assembly and the Executive meant that the communities in Northern Ireland suffered. The public services suffered, as did the public servants. Very recently, we saw how they felt the impact of that. Let us hope that this news today will see a new dawn for Northern Ireland so we can move ahead and see some progress. I am sure the Government here will offer all the support it can with the obvious teething issues that will occur over the next couple of weeks. We look forward to a First Minister and a deputy First Minister being elected.

I wish to raise the issue of the January bonuses and the double payment that 1.3 million people received this week. This is really welcome. It was part of the budget package to help people with the cost of living. People such as pensioners, carers, people with disabilities, lone parents and people on low incomes received a double payment this week. That is really welcome. It is a huge boost for them and their communities, because we know people who receive social welfare spend it in their local communities. This helps support local businesses. Yet, there is one glaringly obvious gap in the list of many recipients who will receive this, namely, people who receive maternity benefit. It is often the only income that women who are on maternity leave will have. Quite often, many employers do not top up that payment. It is a very vulnerable time for women, both personally and financially. As we know from the statistics, there is an increase in domestic violence and coercive control during pregnancy and immediately after giving birth.I think a double payment of maternity benefit would really benefit people. It would give them a lot more stability and a lot more financial freedom. It is a pity the Minister did not include that. Will the Acting Leader write to the Minister for Social Protection and ask for maternity benefit to be included if the bonus payment is to be repeated? The double child benefit payment was very welcome and will help this cohort, but this is one big gap and I would like to see it corrected.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Fine Gael)
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On our group's part and our party's part, I express the real sadness we felt about the news we got about John Connor's passing on Saturday. I will not outline again his esteemed career, which you have just outlined for us, a Chathaoirligh. He was undoubtedly a public servant to his core. While you are correct in saying he was a man of real intellect, he was probably one of the most humble people you could talk to. There was no hifalutin loftiness about him. He knew as much about international affairs as he knew about what was going on down the road or around the corner from him. That epitomises the kind of person he was and the interest he had in people and anything and everything that affected people. I do not know this from personal experience, but I am also told by my colleagues that he had an absolutely wicked sense of humour and that is why he was liked by all and every party in this House and in the chambers he shared in Roscommon. I put on the record of the House how sorry we are. We extend our sincere condolences to John's family, his very wide circle of friends in his community and the people he served. It was a privilege to have had him as a member of our party.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I and, I am sure, all members of my group join others in expressing sympathy to the Connor family. It is a tragedy to lose somebody in a road traffic accident.

Two and a half years ago, after the cyberattack on the HSE, I started to involve myself in matters cyber. Initially, I worked with Louth and Meath ETB. That spread out to the University of Galway, Munster Technological University and many other education centres around the country. I have had the honour of leading two delegations to Estonia to visit CCDCOE, which is the advisory centre in cyber, and CR14, which is a major national infrastructure cyber range, and I have been instrumental in bringing together a memorandum of understanding with a company called CybExer, which will provide cyber range technology to Irish centres that are running cyber-awareness programmes.

Why am I bringing this up today? I believe Ireland should be at the forefront of cybersecurity. We should be one of the leading nations, given the amount of information technology infrastructure there is in this country. To that end, I would like a debate in this House. I believe we should fund cyber-awareness programmes. We have coming online a programme developed by National Geographicfor national school children which we want to pilot in the near future. We also have a number of cyber-awareness programmes for chief executive officers, chief financial officers and so on down through the business system. If we are to get on top of cyber, however, we have to start delivering cyber-awareness programmes and we have to do so as a State service. To that end, I know Pat Larkin, the chairman of Cyber Ireland, has taken on the call with me that we should ring-fence €1 billion over ten years to deliver cyber programmes. All we need is a serious attack in this country, and if that happens, we will lose some of the major foreign direct investment.

I put on record my deep appreciation for Commandant Frank Hickey, who works with CCDCOE in Tallinn. It was such an honour to be there, to find a member of our Defence Forces, and before him, in the earlier one, Rónán O'Flaherty, a Galway man. I also record my appreciation for our ambassador there. I know everybody in this room will say that, when we go abroad, the ambassadors we meet do a fantastic job, but James Sherry pushed himself beyond. He had a Minister, Paschal Donohoe, visiting at the same time we were there and he found time for all of us. It is wonderful representation for Ireland abroad. I would like a debate with the Minister for further and higher education, Simon Harris, on cyber and the delivery of cyber-awareness programmes.

Photo of Eileen FlynnEileen Flynn (Independent)
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This afternoon I want to call again for strong hate crime legislation. Unfortunately, due to the volume of emails received over the summer and in the last few months about its hate crime legislation, the Government has paused it, ignoring the fact that many NGOs and people from minority groups, including the Irish Traveller Movement and Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, have been fighting for years for strong hate crime legislation to be passed. We were more than half way there, with the Bill due to be debated on Committee Stage in this House. I am very fearful that because it is unpopular with far right organisations and individuals, it will not be progressed and I am very worried for minority groups in this country. The Government should at least give us a date. Indeed, Fianna Fáil should give us a date because I understand its Members have been tabling amendments to the Bill. We need to have a set date for moving the Bill forward in this House. I understand that it may not be important to many Members of this House, but for me as a member of the Traveller community, it is crucial. Before I was ever a Member of this House, I did an enormous amount of work on getting hate crime legislation introduced in this country. We are talking about keeping up as a society. We have a hate crime Bill and all we want to do is to keep up as a society, just as we are doing on 8 March with the referendums. Let us keep moving forward with this legislation. All I am looking for from the Minister is a date so that we know the end is in sight and know that we will have good, strong legislation in place. It will not stop people from being nasty and calling people from minority groups names and so on. People will still have the right to be offensive but the legislation will make them think twice. Most importantly, it will make minority groups, including people of colour and people with disabilities, feel more protected in this country.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I want to begin by joining with others in offering my condolences and those of my party to the family of Mr. John Connor.

The restoration of the Executive and Assembly is very good news for all of the people of Ireland. It allows for the full operation of the Good Friday Agreement and all its interlocking institutions, especially the all-island North-South institutions. It is an opportunity for Ms Michelle O'Neill to fulfil her promise to be a First Minister for all the people of the North. It will provide hands-on leadership from all of the parties to help the people of the North to deal with the day-to-day challenges facing them, including the rising cost of living, the underpayment of public service workers and the under-funding of those services. It will assist reconciliation between the people of the North and across this island and will provide opportunities for those advocates of constitutional change. I want to put on record our welcome for that announcement and hopefully everything will go well over the next week.

Last week, along with the Acting Leader, I took part in a debate in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Palestine. It was, without doubt, one of the most depressing moments, to be in that assembly as we saw an attempt to call for a ceasefire undermined by the far right. Unfortunately, politicians from almost all groups rallied around the far right call to block the calls for a ceasefire. It was appalling to witness that happening.

The International Court of Justice ruling is extremely welcome. It makes it clear that Israel has been ordered to prevent genocide. The court made an extremely powerful call but what happened afterwards is really telling. The allies of Israel, including the USA, Britain, Germany and Italy, immediately moved, in a very co-ordinated way, to undermine the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. Ten countries have now withdrawn funding from UNRWA on the basis of allegations, without evidence, against 12 employees out of a total of 30,000. The work of UNRWA enables the people of Palestine to survive and stay in Palestine. We are witnessing an attempt by various countries to undermine the ruling of the ICJ and the evidence given in that court, which is despicable. The fact of the matter is that one in four Palestinians is currently at risk of starvation and that is only going to increase.What does that tell us about the actions of these countries? They are effectively condemning the Palestinian people to starvation or else forcing them to leave their country, which is of course the real aim behind all of this. Indeed, if one looks at Netanyahu's statements, he has been very clear about that. He wants the Palestinians gone from Palestine.

The situation continues to get worse. We urgently need to see action. I call on the Irish Government to join the case with South Africa at the International Court of Justice. There is no excuse at this point for not doing so. We need to do more, we must do more and I call for an urgent debate on this issue.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Míle buíochas. Anois, an Seanadóír Aidan Davitt.

Photo of Aidan DavittAidan Davitt (Fianna Fail)
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Today I want to talk about the cost of business and the imminent and upgraded scheme on the cost of business and the reliefs. There is quite a onerous amount of new red tape and regulation for all businesses, particularly small businesses that are operated by two, three or four people. First there is the cost of auto-enrolment for pensions. Somebody must physically set this up and maintain it every month or whenever the pension comes out. Certain expenses must now be reported to Revenue on a monthly basis, which was never the case heretofore. A lot of the daily expenses incurred by staff will now fall into a new regulation and will have to be reported monthly. As the paperwork involved is quite sizeable, the smaller operations I am talking about will need somebody with accountancy expertise to make it happen. It will not happen by chance. These are examples of the significant additional red tape faced by operations. Apart from that, there are all of the other issues that have been mentioned here before. We have discussed them over and back. While I have no problem with the new sick leave entitlements, unfortunately the employer must foot the cost. That is where the complication arises with the increase to five days. I have no problem with the increase in the minimum wage, but evidently it is an increased cost. I do not have a problem with the rate being set where it is. The cost of power and heat has increased. All of these issues have been thrashed out here over the last while. Their cumulative effect is detrimental to small business. All of these changes are coming in at once. A lot of this new red tape has come in since 1 January, including the sick days and wages initiatives. I know the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has a new help-to-business scheme coming but I do not think it will be enough. It must be more targeted at small business.

Finally, I want to be associated with what the Cathaoirleach said about John Connor. He was a decent guy. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times and he was always a great character. I would like to pass on my condolences to his family.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Míle buíochas. Anois, an Seanadóir Aisling Dolan.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for his words. I might use this time to pay tribute to John Connor. The thoughts of Senators are with his friends and his family, and the many Oireachtas colleagues, Deputies, Senators and councillors across County Roscommon who knew him well. His passing is shocking and sudden. I spoke to him on Monday last. He attended the Fine Gael conference that took place in Maynooth before Christmas. He travelled from Frenchpark to the conference where he met many friends and colleagues. His death is very sudden for many people.

John was a Fine Gael representative for the Roscommon area for close to three decades. He was elected first as TD for Roscommon-Galway in 1981 and he retired from public representation when he stepped down in 2009. His life was one of immense public service for the benefit of the people of counties Roscommon and Galway, and at a national level.

John was an intellectual of huge depth and conviction. Every time you spoke with him, you knew that he had such huge knowledge. As a politician, he combined being passionate about local affairs with his enormous commitment on an international level. In 1992, he was appointed by the then Fine Gael leader, John Bruton, as the Dáil's Opposition spokesperson on European affairs. He was deputy leader of Fine Gael in Seanad Éireann and served as spokesperson on foreign affairs, justice and other portfolios.

John really cared for people at home, and at an international level too.I think that was a real interest of his. I know it is a difficult time for the people of Frenchpark, Roscommon and Galway.

I wish to say “Thank you”. I am fortunate to be here and to have been nominated as a Senator because it gave me the opportunity to get to know John and speak with him. I am grateful for advice that everybody gives. I am grateful for all of that.

Finally, he really did his utmost and it never stopped. Even when he was speaking to me, it was on behalf of his local community and it was about engaging again. May he rest in peace.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for that lovely tribute.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I join in sending my sympathies to John Connor’s family. I knew John Connor well and I engaged with him on many occasions. One of the abiding memories I have of him is his great skill as an orator. He could make his words come alive in this Chamber and in the Dáil. It is a skill not too many politicians have but he had in buckets and abundance. He was passionate about rural life, Roscommon and his party. He had the skill to bring the passion in an ordered way with clarity, function, purpose and thought, and bedded it into legislation. People listen to people who come with a considered view. That is the abiding memory I have of him.

Along with the Taoiseach and others, including Senator Seán Kyne, I recently visited the Bord Bia Innovator Campus in Athenry, County Galway, which is a lovely part of the world. The Minister for agriculture is due to launch a document this week related to women, agriculture and food. We need more women in agriculture and food. The Taoiseach highlighted in Athenry on Friday the significance of women entrepreneurs in food. I wish the Bord Bia Innovator Campus every success.

Finally, I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate Rachel Brown from Ballina, Mayo, who has been elected president of the Veterinary Council of Ireland. It is a prestigious position to hold. Rachel is a practising vet from Ballina. She succeeded a previous woman, Vivienne Duggan, who was there for two years. Well done to the women being elected to the most senior positions in veterinary medicine and nursing in Ireland.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I call the father of the House, Senator Paddy Burke.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I rise to support the motion for John Connor. I was saddened when I heard the news that John Connor had been involved in an accident and sadly passed away. I served in this Chamber with John Connor from 1997, I think, to 2002. As previous Senators said, he was one of the finest orators who graced these Chambers. He had a way with the English language and he had a great ability to put his point across not just on agriculture but many subjects that were raised.

His battles with the Leader of the House at the time, Donie Cassidy, are legendary. He had many a battle with Donie Cassidy – nearly every morning on the Order of Business – and they are well documented.

John Connor, as the Cathaoirleach said, was elected in 1981. He was a short period in the Dáil, he then went into the Seanad, back into the Dáil again and then back into the Seanad. Of course, the constituency in Roscommon was finely balanced between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at that time. Sometimes it was two Fianna Fáil representatives and one Fine Gael, or two Fine Gael and two Fianna Fáil. It was always either him or Liam Naughten. One was in the Seanad and the other was in the Dáil. It was a difficult constituency to hold down a Dáil seat in. They had the same battles in Fianna Fáil between Terry Leyden and Seán Doherty.

John Connor was both a TD and a Senator and served for 20 years in Roscommon County Council. He was a great public representative. He was very popular right across the political divide. It is with great sadness that we learned he was involved in a car accident. I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to the Connor family.John Connor and I were on the agricultural panel. We never had any falling out. We both got elected and we were the best of friends. That is the way John Connor was. He was a very nice man and I am saddened to say he has passed away.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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The Residential Tenancies Board reports that there are approximately 520 approved housing bodies in Ireland with a stock size of more than 30,000 homes. These bodies tend to deal with the housing needs of either a particular geographical area or a particular demographic, including families on low incomes, households with special needs such as older persons and people with disabilities, homeless households, and persons in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction or a combination of both. While recognising that many of these bodies are responsible for great work being done, can it really be the case that the operation of 520 separate and sometimes competing housing bodies is the most efficient way to tackle the housing crisis? Surely this is a textbook case of too many cooks. Every single one of these bodies has a chief executive, managers, secretarial staff, and community liaison. How many paycheques are signed every week for people working in the charity public housing sector? How profitable is it to work in the area of solving Ireland's housing crisis? The largest of these, the Peter McVerry Trust, confirmed last year that it owes €8.3 million to Revenue, prompting the Government to establish a statutory investigation into its finances and governance. The trust is now being bailed out to the tune of €15 million. Among the 520 housing bodies, how many do we think would have discrepancies revealed by an investigation into their finances and governance? I reckon that a full audit is needed of Ireland's approved housing bodies. We need to know how much money is being given to these not-for-profit organisations tasked with relieving housing need, by which I mean solving the problem that keeps them in business. The provision of social housing within a local electoral area should be the remit of the elected members of that local authority with the assistance and co-operation of the Executive. Government reliance on the NGO sector must decrease and the money and power divested to our local authorities.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I, too, rise to join in the words of sympathy to John Connor's family. I knew John very well down the years. I knew him on a number of levels. I knew him politically as an elected colleague. I also knew him through family in that my in-laws are all in Roscommon. They were all friends of his and I knew him in that fashion as well. I had the privilege with my wife of visiting just before Christmas and I spoke to him on the telephone at Christmas. He was very well and he was very enthusiastic about the future. He had many great plans. One of his great passions and loves was to travel. He outlined to me an extraordinary journey he had mapped out to take this January and February through Asia. He had virtually travelled all of the world as it was. We had a wonderful meeting with him then and a lovely visit to his very beautiful home in its lovely setting. He was very hospitable and very warm by nature. He was an extraordinary conversationalist with extraordinary knowledge across a range of areas. He was so well read and he knew everything right across the arts, current affairs and right into agriculture, with technical knowledge of everything. It was quite extraordinary and you seldom get it. I am not sure how often one would meet that. He was a really cultured man. Everyone speaks of his oratory, which is well justified and merited. He was very much in the mould and probably quite inspired by James Dillon, his neighbour from Frenchpark, in that he spoke like James Dillon and he had the same turns of phrase and same classical knowledge with an extraordinary skill as a debater. He had a conviction and passion, and a love for the people of Roscommon for whom he worked very hard. All I can say is that he is a great loss as a colleague and as a friend. He is a great loss to political life and political activism. I am very heartened by the words right across the House about him today.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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I did not know Mr. Connor but I want to express my condolences. It is a desperately lonely time for families and friends today with such an untimely death. I send my blessings and my thoughts to that family because it can be an horrendous, lonely, dark road they have to walk over the next while.

I express my relief that the DUP voted last night to re-enter Government. I congratulate Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on the work he did in ensuring that. It was a tight vote. A lot of work was done and there was much political bravery in what happened last night. It is a relief to thousands in the North in particular but also to those in counties along the Border. We see the damage the lack of institutions is doing to our neighbours and our friends in the North, to the social fabric, to their public service, to morale and to their faith in institutions and in democracy. I really hope that over the coming weeks we see the North back in business and that we see the normal discourse and the disagreements that happen in every chamber in the world. We hope normality reappears in the North. With Stormont and our North-South institutions back up and running, I look forward to those conversations, the briefings and the disagreements, because these are all part of it. I express my thanks - maybe thanks is a stretch - but my congratulations and relief that we are here today.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I wish to be associated with the remarks on John Connor. My sympathies go to his family on the shock and suddenness of his loss which no doubt will be a terrible tragedy to his family and friends and all those who knew him.

Over recent days that most elusive of things has occurred, that being that X actually managed to take action on an event that broke its community rules. It was an existential act on its part because the event happened to be the publication of deep fake photographs of Taylor Swift. Given her prominence in the world, it actually took action on it, but only after the account that published the photographs, which were particularly heinous apparently - I have not seen any of them - were viewed more than 43 million times. There is the capacity now for anyone in public life or anyone at all, even in private and social enterprise, to have videos or photographs of them created that misrepresent them, that use the intellectual property that is their own face and persona, and that abuse that with messaging that is offensive and downright wrong. While X acted on this occasion, we know of many occasions when it does not. Many of us in this Chamber have made complaints that were not responded to by X. It took no action. It was completely irresponsible on the day of the Dublin riots.

I would like a debate and statements in this House on the state of social media. We are facing into elections, into the possibility of economic enterprises being attacked in such a way through deep fake. We need watermarking and all of these things. The Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, needs to come into the House and update us on where all the plans that were set in motion are at now.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Today, at the end of January, might be an unusual time to start talking about beaches. As part of a coastal area, beaches are an integral part of our tourism offering. We have a problem with coastal erosion on a large number of our beaches. At the same time, we are also seeing local authorities trying to improve the quality of services that are available.I have raised the issue of Ballymoney beach in north Wexford, where a young man, Mr. Matthew McGrath, has been campaigning for disability access. The tender documents have been signed, so it will become one of the most accessible beaches in the country. The Oireachtas tourism committee, on which I sit, made a number of recommendations last year about rural tourism. One of them was specifically on how to support and enhance our beaches around the country.

Beaches are important as a tourism offering, but we also need to consider the problem of coastal erosion. One of the areas we are seeing the impacts of climate change is in our waters. While it might get a few smiles, we need a debate about our coast and beaches. I ask that the Acting Leader facilitate such a debate with the Minister for tourism, Deputy Catherine Martin, at some stage.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I wish to be associated with the generous comments about the former Senator and TD, John Connor. I did not know him well, but his reputation as a parliamentarian, orator and committed public representative was well known the length and breadth of the country. I offer my sympathies to his family on this very sad occasion.

On Thursday, we will see the introduction of the plastic bottle Re-turn scheme. It is welcome, although a little confusing for people. There is a lack of understanding out there, although I understand that a media and information campaign is taking place, which is welcome. What worries me about this scheme is that it discriminates against small and even medium-sized shopkeepers. If someone buys bottles in a small shop, he or she has to go to a larger shop – usually a multiple – to return them. That person then gets a voucher to shop in the multiple, be it SuperValu, Lidl, Aldi, Dunnes Stores, Tesco or whatever. That is grossly unfair. Before the scheme was introduced, we should have ensured that there were community machines at, for example, bottle banks or outside local authority recycling centres to which people could return their bottles. There should have been an option for people to return bottles to a county council-operated facility, where they would get cash in return. The scheme is discriminatory towards small and medium-sized shopkeepers – the Spars, Centras and independent retailers – up and down the country. They cannot participate. They do not have the space or resources to install one of these machines. It is unfair. The Government took its eye off the ball in introducing a scheme that has created such discrimination against our small and medium-sized shopkeepers. I call on the Minister to take one of two steps: suspend the scheme or introduce these machines at county council facilities. I suspect that will not happen, but I encourage the Minister to provide resources immediately so that county councils can at least buy one per county – preferably one per municipal district – and get rid of this discrimination against our shopkeepers.

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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I express my deep sympathy to the family of the former Senator, TD and councillor, John Connor. I hope that the positive words and stories being shared about him will come as some comfort. My mother commented on Monday night about meeting him in Frenchpark during the presidential election. From my family to his, my deepest sympathies.

I welcome today’s good news that the DUP has backed a deal to return to Stormont. Am I giddy about it? No, because I cannot applaud any position that oversaw the boycotting of power-sharing institutions for the past two years or the crumbling of public services in the North. Am I hopeful? Yes, always. The other political parties will meet the DUP later today and we will get to see the proposals tomorrow, which will be important.What I do want to see is change, stability and the end of the stopping and starting of power-sharing. I want Stormont up and running to tackle the problems, challenges and opportunities we have in the North of Ireland. How do we do that? We need reform of Stormont. We need to end the veto on appointing a Speaker and forming an Executive. We need reform of the North-South Ministerial Council, which has not sat properly since 2017. This has come about at the hands of the DUP and Sinn Féin. We need an end to that situation. We need stability.

The North-South Ministerial Council appoints chief executives to the implementation boards of the North-South bodies. Last week, we had representatives of the special EU programmes body, which oversees the PEACEPLUS programme, before the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I said that if it was not for their determination to roll out PEACEPLUS, which is a package of funding worth €1.4 billion, between now and the end of this decade, and to see communities supported all around the Border counties, then they would not have the resources to do this. As a result, we need the North-South Ministerial Council up and running. We need reform and we need to see a new era of reconciliation politics.

Photo of John McGahonJohn McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I would like to be associated with the comments made by my colleagues on the death of John Connor. John served for a long time as a Member of Dáil Éireann and of Seanad Éireann. Indeed, when Longford was in the same constituency as Roscommon, there were some very close battles between him and the late Louis Belton. On each occasion, though, where either Louis or John lost their Dáil seat, they managed to return to this much more august Chamber in which the standard of the debate is naturally higher.

One of the reasons I wanted to have a chat with the Acting Leader today was to ask for a debate to be held at some point in the future about social protection. We have a very good social protection and welfare system in this country. I think we can all agree with this. Like any organisation or system, though, parts of it need to be tweaked and made better. One area where I would like to see this happen concerns those people who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis, ME. People who have chronic fatigue syndrome are entitled to illness benefit. That is what they go on and what they can avail of, and that is fine.

Like most people who end up being on long-term illness benefit, however, they will transfer at some stage to the invalidity payment. The benefit of doing that is it means people will get contributions towards their pensions, when that time comes. Chronic fatigue syndrome, however, is not currently considered by the Department of Social Protection as an illness allowing people to go onto the invalidity scheme. I think this is wrong and needs to be tweaked.

One of the reasons for this situation is that it is very difficult to establish a diagnosis for chronic fatigue syndrome because it affects everyone in various different ways. One thing I would like to see discussed in a wider debate about social protection, therefore, is how we can get the proper entitlements that the people who suffer from this illness deserve. I am sure this is something my colleague, the Deputy Leader of this House, Senator Doherty, would have been aware of when she led that Department as a Minister. A wider debate around this issue, then, would be welcome. People who have chronic fatigue syndrome should be allowed to get the invalidity payment, which would allow them to claim proper pension rights as well.

Photo of Micheál CarrigyMicheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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I also wish to be associated with the comments of my colleagues concerning the late John Connor. As Senator McGahon said, he represented Longford-Roscommon for a term, alongside the late Louis Belton. It is ironic to lose these two stalwarts of the party in a short time. Our deepest sympathy goes to the Connor family.

I wish to raise the issue of the school building programme. I have been chatting to representatives of several schools in my area, including Ballymahon Vocational School and St. Columba's National School in north County Longford. Both those schools have submitted applications for additional classrooms based on their numbers. They are going to have higher numbers for the next several years. The school building unit, however, has said that no further applications for primary schools are going to be assessed for additional accommodation for mainstream classrooms.

I think we need a discussion on this matter. I do not think this is the proper situation to have. If a school needs accommodation, then it should get it to suit the pupil numbers. We cannot have a situation where we are saying that for the next several years we are not going to put funding in place for additional classrooms. We may need to consider where we are with the school building programme. I know we had issues several months ago and it all got clarified.A significant number have been announced in recent years. Where are they at? What stage of the process are the schools at? We cannot have a situation where a school is told its application will not be assessed. This is not acceptable. We might have a discussion with the Minister for Education to get an update on where the schools building programme is at present and what are the projections for the coming years with regard to accommodation in mainstream and special education.

I want to raise a matter that I also raised at an Oireachtas committee meeting a number of weeks ago when we met some of the online companies. It is with regard to the protection of people in public life. Meta said that because we are politicians we are open to criticism and it will not take down any offensive material that is put up about people in political life, even if it is untrue. This is not satisfactory. The Oireachtas committee will meet Meta tomorrow to have further discussions on this issue. It is difficult to get people into public life and it is not acceptable if a social media company feels that people can put up lies about those in public life.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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I wish to be associated with the comments about the late John Connor. I met him on numerous occasions at party events and I knew him by reputation. I also met him during Seanad campaigns. He is a man who was well regarded and well spoken. As others have said he was an orator of distinction. My sympathies and condolences to all of his extended family.

I have raised in the past issues regarding the school transport system. A review into the working of the school transport system is under way and it should be nearing completion. The Minister, Deputy Foley, has stated it is her intention to bring it to the Cabinet as soon as she receives it. I assume we will have an opportunity to have a debate in the House when that happens. The school transport system does great work and most pupils are brought to school every day without problems. In Galway issues have arisen on a number of school routes which got a bus and driver but the contract has not been fulfilled since last October. There is one route in particular from my area of Tullokyne to St. Paul's Secondary School in Oughterard that has not been operational since 17 or 18 October. It has left parents and children high and dry. It is causing great frustration.

While it is a local issue there are solutions, and I have raised them previously, with regard to the driver retirement age and drivers who are aged over 70 who are fit and able to drive. They can bring children to sports events but cannot bring the same children on the school run. I certainly hope this solution will be covered in the review the Minister has asked for. It would be an obvious solution. It would free up a number of drivers for the school system for next year. There needs to be a better approach in Bus Éireann to ensure parents and children are not left high and dry for up to three months. It is not good enough. While there may be issues between contractors and Bus Éireann, at the end of the day it is Bus Éireann's responsibility on behalf of the Department of Education to ensure children who have a valid ticket and who have paid their fare are brought to school.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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We started this morning with Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee who, along with many of my colleagues, welcomed the news overnight that Stormont will be re-established. It is very important not only for the people of Northern Ireland but particularly for them. It is sad to think there were elections in May 2022 but Stormont has not sat since. Many communities and public services have been let down because of this. Let us all hope this will lead to good stable government for a period of time.

Senator Clifford-Lee also spoke about the January bonuses and the double payments which are part of the budget package this year, and the fact the extra money paid out in the double bonus adds to the circular economy in terms of money being spent in the locality. She highlighted an obvious gap for those who receive maternity leave benefit, which is sometimes their only source of income during that time. In some cases employers top up the payment but in many cases they do not. Senator Clifford-Lee believes it would be worthwhile to speak to the Minister about this.We shall certainly do that.

Senator Doherty spoke very eloquently in what was a very heartfelt tribute to John Connor. I am sorry I did not know him because just from listening to all of the accolades, he was clearly a very fine, distinguished person. Apart from his distinguished political career, he was a person of great integrity and talent and had great interests in so many different areas.

Senator Craughwell spoke about cybersecurity, the work he has carried out with some local councils and education centres, and his work in Estonia. He believes Ireland should be at the forefront of this. We will request a debate on cyber-awareness with the Minister, Deputy Harris.

Senator Flynn spoke about the need for strong hate crime legislation. I completely agree with her. Ireland is an outlier in that respect. I believe we are waiting for the Department to schedule Committee Stage. The Seanad is ready to schedule it. I hope it happens soon.

Senator Gavan spoke about the situation in Stormont and said it is very good news. It is also very good news for the re-establishment of the North-South bodies.

The Senator also referred to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, where both he and I spoke on the same page last week on supporting Palestine. Like the Senator, I was very concerned about the lack of empathy in terms of what is happening in Palestine. He is right in saying the International Court of Justice's finding is very significant. I understand the Tánaiste is going to come to the House on 20 February and we are going to have a debate on the situation in the Middle East. The Senator also mentioned the fact that ten countries have withdrawn funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. Thankfully, Ireland is not one of them. Ireland is absolutely steadfast in its support for the people of Palestine and any funding that can be put in place to support them. It was a shocking decision by those ten countries. We can only hope they will change their minds in that regard.

Senator Davitt spoke about the costs for businesses. He is right they are escalating. In budget 2024, an agreement was put in place to ensure funding will be available for businesses to help with the cost of rates and the cost of the rise in the minimum wage. The Senator also spoke about the cost of administration, for example, in auto-enrolment for pensions. Certainly, we have to simplify the grant processes for businesses. We absolutely have to help support them. They are the lifeblood of all the towns and communities we represent.

Senator Dolan also spoke about John Connor. I know his death must be a big blow for her as he was from so close to her own area. Obviously, he was a very fine person and the people in the area are, sadly, bereft by his sudden death.

Senator Boyhan spoke of meeting the Taoiseach in Athenry and the importance of women in agriculture and food. I know the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is releasing a report quite soon on that issue. The Senator congratulated Rachel Brown from Ballina, who has been elected president of the Veterinary Council of Ireland. All our congratulations go to Rachel.

Senator Burke spoke very eloquently about the late John Connor. I thank him for his contribution.

Senator Keogan spoke about the 520 approved housing bodies that administer 30,000 housing units. While the approved housing bodies were brought in to fill a gap that existed at a particular time, I agree they tend to manage most of the social housing we have now. The responsibility seems to have shifted from local government and the local councils to the approved housing bodies. I agree we should try to refocus all of our local authorities and bring them right to the centre of that situation.

Senator Joe O'Reilly also spoke about John Connor and extended his deep sympathies.

Senator McGreehan spoke on Stormont and about the courage of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Indeed, we thank him for his leadership.It is important to have leaders who step up to the mark and he certainly did that. Now we have an opportunity for normal discourse in any chamber. We want to renew faith in democracy in Northern Ireland.

Senator Seery Kearney spoke about X, formerly Twitter, and the action it took on the deepfake photos of Taylor Swift, but not until they had amassed 43 million views. These are absolutely abusive images and we need to have much stronger and better measures in place. I understand that, as Senator Carrigy noted, the Oireachtas media committee is holding a series of meetings on misinformation, disinformation, deepfakes and so on, and I know that representatives of X have agreed to appear before that committee. This is something we all need to be concerned about. Approximately 75% of the world will have elections this year and we will have at least two referendums, two sets of elections and possibly more, so we need to be mindful of it.

Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke about beaches being an integral part of tourism and about the need for access for those with a disability. It is good to see the work happening in Curracloe, and I believe some work at Rosslare was rolled out last year. We also need to look at coastal erosion. We will ask the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, to appear before the House in respect of that.

Senator Conway spoke about the deposit return scheme, which will start on Thursday morning, and I agree with his analysis. I have called for grants for smaller businesses to enable them to afford the machines because it is wrong to be sending people who buy goods in a small shop to a bigger business that can afford to have those machines. It was a good suggestion to look at the local authorities also having them.

Senator Currie added her voice to the congratulations regarding Stormont and spoke about the importance of hope and stability. The reforms of the North-South Ministerial Council are certainly something we can speak to the Tánaiste about because, as she pointed out, appointments are made to North-South bodies and that is important. We want to see a new era on the island of Ireland and we want to see collaboration. I have no doubt the Government and the Tánaiste's Department will engage constructively with the new executive to assist it and work together in areas where North-South co-operation can make a positive difference to the economic and social life of the island of Ireland.

Senator McGahon spoke about social welfare and the fact those suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome need to have proper entitlements and the invalidity payment. I think that is a good case to take up.

Senator Carrigy spoke about the schools building programme. I was surprised when he said an answer was given suggesting that no more building projects were going to be taken by the Department. Only last Friday, there were two significant announcements in my constituency under the schools building programme, relating to Holy Family Secondary School, Newbridge, and the school in Milltown. I will investigate it further because we need to get to the bottom of a response such as that. I undertake to take it up with the Minister, Deputy Foley, and we will look for engagement with her on the schools building programme, which we recently dealt with at the education committee.

Senator Kyne spoke about school transport. I understand the review was published with recommendations but that we are not going to get sight of it until the Cabinet has had the opportunity to look at it and costings for it. It is an onerous task, without doubt, and the majority of children are well served by it, but where it does not work, it simply does not work and that is wrong. Given Bus Éireann is handsomely paid for its operation, there should be penalties where the terms of the contract have not been complied with. I agree with the Senator on the issue of the age of drivers. That is totally outside the remit of the Department, as he knows. Bus Éireann has those rules and it is up to the organisation to change them.

Order of Business agreed to.