Sinn Féin spokesperson on Agriculture Matt Carthy TD and spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire have said that serious new questions have arisen following a statement in the Dáil by Minister Charlie McConalogue on the recall of the ViroPro hand sanitiser.
It emerged during the minister's address that the Department of Agriculture was notified via the EU anti-fraud agency, OLAF, of potential concerns with ViroPro in September, and that the dangers were confirmed by the department a full week ago.
Separately, the Department of Education clarified today that it was made aware of the issue on Tuesday but schools and parents were kept in the dark until Thursday evening.
Teachta Carthy said:
“Sinn Féin sought a Dáil debate on this issue. Instead we got a late night statement with no opportunity for questions or response.
“In fact, Minister McConalogue’s statement raised even further questions than those we had originally following confirmation of the recall of ViroPro late Thursday.
“Why was the product not recalled - or at least the concerns publicised - upon receipt of the OLAF notification on 25th September? Why, when there was concrete evidence last week that this product was dangerous, was this information not immediately acted upon?
“The Minister for Agriculture told the Dáil that he only learned of these developments on Thursday. That exposes a systematic failing within his department. Does the minister have a handle on his department at all?
“Through all of this debacle, a dangerous product has been widely used in schools and other public settings. There must be accountability for that.
“I have therefore written to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Agriculture to request an urgent meeting to examine these matters and the minister's handling of them next week.”
Teachta Ó Laoghaire said:
"The two departments are on a different page - apparently informed of an issue on Tuesday but not the detail of it.
"RTÉ have reported that the Department of Education has clarified that it was told the name of the hand sanitiser product range on Tuesday. Yet it did not tell schools until Thursday night.
"Schools remained open and using ViroPro over the course of those two days.
"There is no acceptable reason for this. Parents and schools should have been told immediately. It is outrageous that it took them until late Thursday night to do so.
"The Department of Education has a lot of explaining to do. I regret that Minister Foley didn’t take up my offer to make a statement on Thursday night in Dáil before this latest saga got to this stage of confusion
"She now needs to come before the Education Committee to give us answers. I have written to the chair and clerk of the committee to request this."
Mid-Ulster Sinn Fein Councillor Niall McAleer has called on Edwin Poots to put in place financial support for Lough Neagh Fishermen to assist during the pandemic.
Councillor Niall McAleer said
“Like most other areas of the economy, fishing on Lough Neagh has been hit by a huge downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There have been promises of support from DAERA Minister Edwin Poots to assist fishermen affected by this downturn, however this has yet to materialise.
“On the 15th September, in response to a question in the Assembly by Mid Ulster MLA Emma Sheerin, the Minister committed to putting in place a scheme for Lough Neagh fishermen and advised he would release further details within a week.
“In a further written response to Upper Bann MLA, John O’Dowd, on 8th October the Minister again advised that details for a scheme would be announced shortly.
“Another two weeks have passed and fishermen on Lough Neagh are still waiting on concrete proposals for a financial support scheme. The uncertainty created by these continued delays are causing great concern.
“The Minister must urgently clarify when a scheme of financial support will open so that those affected are given some financial certainty for the immediate future.”
Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy has welcomed the extension of free school meal payments to families over the half-term break.
The Mid Ulster MP said:
“I welcome confirmation from the Executive that free school meal payments will be extended over the half-term break.
“This is a difficult enough time for families and continuation of these payments will be a huge relief.
“No child should ever have to go hungry and it’s positive that ministers will also be looking at tackling holiday hunger in the long term.
“Sinn Féin in government are working to protect workers and families during this difficult time.”
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire has called on the Minister for Education to address the space issues facing many schools across the state that are making it difficult to adhere to social distancing.
Speaking today, Teachta Ó Laoghaire said: “There is no doubt that the return to school was made all the more difficult because we have an education system that is underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded.
“Six weeks ago, we sent the Minister our policy document Keeping Schools Open, which highlighted the issues that needed to be addressed to ensure schools could reopen safely and sustainably. Space was a key issue we identified. I regret that little has been done since to address this.
“We propose an audit of schools, which should have been done long ago, to identify those schools struggling most with social distancing, and an additional fund of €100m to provide them with whatever additional space they require, whether through hire or modular units or extension.
"We also need the staff to achieve greater social distancing and the minister should restore all suppressed posts - schools shouldn’t be losing teachers this year as it could cause even more overcrowding.
“Overcrowding and a lack of space are the major issues that schools have faced since reopening. Many school leaders I have spoken with have told me that they have struggled to find adequate space to practice safe social distancing in classrooms.
“This, coupled with the fact we have some of the highest class sizes in Europe, makes it very difficult for schools to remain open safely, and it definitely is not sustainable.
“Today, I have called on the Minister to act urgently to address this issue."
Sinn Féin spokesperson for Education, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD, speaking today from Leinster House, called on the Minister for Education to urgently provide clarity on the testing and sampling of the defective hand sanitiser products recommended by her Department for use by children in schools.
Teachta Ó Laoghaire said:
“Schools have had to deal with huge issues and chaos this year, without the fiasco of an email at 22:40 last night informing them that one of the 11 sanitiser products recommended is defective, and that they should close their school if they couldn’t source an alternative.
“I have heard many stories from parents, of 1000s of kids turning up to school this morning to discover that the school gates were shut, and schools were closed for the day. Many principals only learnt of the issues this morning. This is simply not good enough.
“There are huge questions here for the Department of Education.
“We now know that the recall notice says that the products were due to be recalled by Tuesday. Why, then, did this only break so late last night?
“In a recent email which I have had sight of, the Minister’s private secretary informed a member of the public, that all sanitiser providers were asked to provide product samples, which were then assessed and evaluated, and I am quoting, ‘by a team with the necessary technical competencies’.
“Surely, if this were the case, and adequate testing and sampling was completed, these issues would have been found sooner. We do not yet know the extent of damage done.
“I have heard others in Government saying that people are making too much of this issue. In my view, however, it isn’t much to ask expect that where the Department recommend a product to schools, that it is safe for children to use.
“The Department of Agriculture has said that the ViraPro sanitiser in question can cause dermatitis, eye irritation, upper respiratory system irritation and headaches. I have been contacted today by a large cohort of parents, worried about irritation to their children’s skin, and asthmatic children.
“We also need to know if the Department is absolutely confident that the remaining hand sanitiser products have been adequately tested and are safe for use.
“I raised this in the Dáil last night, and I asked the Minister to make a statement, to reassure parents and school staff, and give clarity. I regret that she did not take up this opportunity last night, nor today when I again raised my concerns.
“The Minister must provide us with answers on this immediately, and she must reassure parents and school staff who may have come into contact with the defective product.”
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Finance Pearse Doherty TD has called on the Minister for Finance to clarify why he plans to retrospectively tax hundreds of thousands of Pandemic Unemployment Payment recipients, despite it being introduced as an urgent needs payment that was explicitly exempt from tax under the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997.
The Donegal TD said that Section 3 of the recently published Finance Bill would see PUP recipients taxed for the five months since it was introduced. This is against the explicit provisions of Section 126 of the Taxes Consolidation Act.
Speaking today, Teachta Doherty said: “The Finance Bill published yesterday would see the government retrospectively tax hundreds of thousands of workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
“The Pandemic Unemployment Payment was introduced on March 13th as an Urgent Needs Payment under Section 202 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.
“Section 13 of the Finance Act 2018 amended Section 126 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 to provide that urgent needs payments introduced under Section 2020 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 would be exempt from income tax.
“While the Pandemic Unemployment was put on a statutory footing on August 5th, for the five months from March 13th, the PUP was an urgent needs payment and as such not subject to income tax.
“Section 3 of the Finance Bill 2020 published yesterday seeks to retrospectively tax the Pandemic Unemployment Payment from March 13th.
“This is despite the PUP being exempt from tax by law from March 13th to August 5th.
“For the government to introduce a law that would tax payments that have been made in the past is unheard of.
“The Minister for Finance must explain on what grounds he is retrospectively taxing PUP recipients.
“It is hard to understand why the minister is spending time retrospectively taxing those who have lost their jobs as a result of this pandemic."
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Children, Kathleen Funchion TD, has said that the Children’s Minister must explain why he proceeded with the Mother and Baby Homes Bill after it emerged the Data Protection Commissioner had advised him the legislation breaches existing Irish and EU law on the accessibility of personal data.
Teachta Funchion said: “Throughout this, survivors, their families, their legal representatives and their advocates have been very clear that this Bill has been totally unacceptable.
“The Minister has dismissed their concerns and cast them aside. He has consistently defended this Bill, despite numerous issues being highlighted.
“However, it has now been reported that the Data Protection Commission had advised the Children’s Minister that this Bill would breach the Irish and EU law on the accessibility of personal data.
“This confirms many of the fears that survivors have expressed and highlights the inappropriate way in which the Minister has approached this Bill throughout.
"The Minister must explain what advice he received from the Data Protection Commissioner and how he responded to their recommendation.
“Survivors and their families deserve to know why this has been allowed to take place.”
Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd has announced that the party will table an Assembly motion in support of students who facing challenges to learning as a result of Covid19.
The party’s Further & Higher Education spokesperson said:
“Earlier in the year we successfully lobbied for an increase to the money available to hard-pressed students through the Student Hardship Fund bringing the total to £5.6m.
“We are now calling for the grants available through this fund to be increased and the eligibility criteria broadened to allow more students to access it.
“We have also asked Minister Dodds to issue specific Covid19 advice and guidance to students on safety on and off campus, including guidance on mental health, wellbeing advice and contacts for support organisations.
“Any students seeking to defer for a year should engage directly with their University or College and we have called on these institutions to be flexible and compassionate in their dealing with students who for whatever reason have to defer or leave their course.
“The Economy Minister must work with Colleges, Universities and with student representatives to explore how best to protect student learning, mental health and wellbeing and how to support students in overcoming financial barriers.”
Sinn Féin MLA Colm Gildernew has called on the Health Minister to provide assurances to the public over the protection of cancer services and other non-Covid treatment.
The party’s Health Spokesperson said:
“I have heard from many constituents about the cancellation of urgent cancer treatments and other procedures. This is happening right across the health system.
“The Health Minister needs to take responsibility and action to address the cancellation of urgent cancer treatments, it is not enough to suggest that it’s a matter for Health Trusts’ to deal with.
“Since June we have been getting assurances from the department of health that the process of rebuilding health services would proceed even within the prevailing COVID-19 situation.
“While patients understand the additional pressures that the health and social care system is facing, it’s unacceptable that they are not receiving the urgent care they require.
“Patients need certainty and guarantees that their procedures will go ahead, they should not be left feeling anxious and worried.
“The Minister must immediately put plans in place to ensure cancer patients are receiving the urgent care and treatment they require.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
23 OCTOBER 2020
Walsh welcomes support for new bilingual signage policy in Belfast
Sinn Féin Councillor Seanna Walsh has welcomed support for a proposal to relax the restrictive bilingual street signage policy in Belfast City Council.
The West Belfast Councillor said:
“I welcome cross-party support for a Sinn Féin proposal in the Strategic, Policy and Resources Committee which would relax the stringent bilingual street signage policy in Belfast City Council.
“The proposal will reform the process, with 15% of the street needed to consent and an individual being able to initiate the process.
“This policy would be in line with the objectives set out in the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages and subsequent minority language agreements to protect and grow the Irish language.
“Belfast City Council has one of the most restrictive bilingual street signage policies across the north.
“This restrictive policy runs contrary to the ongoing and flourishing development of the Irish language community in our city – both in traditional Gaeltacht areas and more recently within the PUL community.
“Belfast now has one of the most vibrant and energetic Irish speaking communities in Ireland.
“It is a matter of great pride that our city is quickly emerging as the epicentre of a resurgent Irish language.
"As a Council which has a proud record in standing up for rights and equality over recent years, we must ensure that this extends and fully incorporates the Irish language community.
“Sinn Féin will continue to proactively work with the Irish language community on this matter.”
Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on Transport Darren O’Rourke TD today called for legislation to be introduced urgently to regulate the use of e-scooters.
Teachta O’Rourke’s comments come as figures he has received shows the number of collisions involving e-scooters has increased from three in 2018 to 59 so far this year.
Speaking today, the Meath East TD said: “The popularity of e-scooters has accelerated in recent years, with a significant number of people now using them to commute to and from work and school.
“This rapid growth has bypassed current road traffic legislation and has left significant gaps in the law that need to be addressed urgently.
“E-scooters are a cleaner, cheaper form of transport compared to cars, and their use is only expected to grow, so laws are needed to govern their appropriate use.
“Figures I have received from the Minister for Justice show 91 e-scooters have been seized or detained so far this year, while 46 traffic offences involving e-scooter users have also been recorded in 2020.
“Most worryingly is the number of collisions involving e-scooters, which has increased from three in 2018 to 37 so far this year, highlighting the urgent need for action.
“It is vital legislation is put in place to ensure the safety of both e-scooter users, pedestrians, cyclists and other road users.
“The lack of regulations pose a challenge for Gardaí and could leave e-scooter users personally liable if they are involved in a collision.
“Introducing laws isn’t about punishing e-scooter users, but rather putting protections in place for their safety and the safety of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.
"Government have committed, in the Programme for Government, to legislate for e-scooters but say their focus is on Covid-19 related matters now.
“As we head into the Christmas period, with the use of public transport limited and many more people likely considering e-scooters as a transport option, it is essential that the Government bring forward their proposals without delay."
Sinn Fein spokesperson on Addiction, Recovery and Wellbeing, Thomas Gould TD, has welcomed the announcement that addiction recovery support groups can continue to meet under Level 5 restrictions but has expressed his disappointment that this issue couldn’t have been resolved prior to the commencement of restrictions.
Teachta Gould said:
“It is welcome news that these vital addiction recovery support groups can resume meeting. They shouldn’t have had to stop again in the first place.
"The Minister for Health has recognised the essential healthcare service these groups provide.
“I contacted the Minister of State on Monday and requested clarity for addiction recovery support groups. This should have been issued then before the restrictions commenced.
"This is yet another example of the Minister’s failure to act for people in recovery. I am deeply concerned that he fails to realise the impact his inaction has on people’s wellbeing.”
Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Children, Kathleen Funchion TD has spoken of her disappointment and anger as the controversial Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and Certain related Matters) Records Bill passed committee and report stages in the Dáil last night.
Speaking this morning Teachta Funchion said:
“I am furious that this Government has completely ignored the well-articulated wishes of survivors of state-sanctioned abuse, that their records do not go to Tusla and that they would not be sealed for 30 years.
"This Government has demonstrated yet again that it does not care about survivors' concerns.
“The outpouring of emotion and anger on this issue could not be ignored by any TD or Senator. We were contacted by thousands of survivors retelling their heart-wrenching stories, some of which I was honoured to read into the Dáil record.
“They were stories from woman and children who have been so cruelly cast aside, dismissed, ignored and simply not believed.
“The Minister had the opportunity with this legislation to stand on the right side of history. To say he believes their stories, he understands their pain and he will do everything in his power to take their concerns into account and to let survivors decide how to handle their own records.
“But he chose not to.
“I want to assure all survivors of mother and baby institutions that Sinn Féin are committed to survivors’ and families’ right to access their own records, and to the preservation of all records. And I, and my colleagues in opposition, will continue to hold the Minister and Government to account.”
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD has called for the Minister for Education to come before the Dáil to answer important questions as to how ViraPro hand sanitiser came to be used in schools and how it came to be recalled.
"Schools have had to deal with enough chaos this year, without the fiasco of an e-mail at 10.40pm last night informing them that they should no longer use one of the eleven Sanitiser products recommended.
"The reality is that many schools only learned about this issue this morning and had to make a call then and there. While some schools were successful in obtaining a replacement, many others were not.
"For those schools it is an enormous disruption on the last day before mid-term. Many parents have been left scrambling at the last minute to either find childcare or to take a day off.
"There are huge questions here for the Department of Education. The Department of Agriculture recall notice was that products were due to be recalled by Tuesday, so why did it take so long for the Department of Education to get the word out? Schools and parents should have been informed immediately.
"The Department of Agriculture said it was recalled as 'prolonged use of such sanitiser may cause dermatitis, eye irritation, upper respiratory system irritation and headaches', and already I am being contacted by parents worried about irritation to their children's skin and asthmatic children.
"The Department said last night that 'some of the sanitiser on sale does not comply with regulations governing the content and efficacy of such products.'
"Questions also need to be asked about how this was cleared. Did the Safety Data sheet indicate that the product was safe for use by children. Was it adequately checked before being checked? Does the Department have any comeback against the company if the product did not do what it said on the SDS, and was not as safe as advertised?
"I raised this with the Minister in the Dáil last night, expressing my deep concern and asked her to make a statement to reassure parents and give clarity. I regret that she did not take the opportunity. She must now do so today.
"The Department of Education urgently need to get a handle on Covid-19 safety measures in schools because it is falling short of the mark in several ways."
Sinn Féin MLA Martina Anderson has said taxi drivers cannot afford to wait any longer for financial support to help them deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Foyle MLA said:
"Taxi drivers urgently need financial support to help them through the current COVID-19 restrictions.
"From the outset of the pandemic taxi drivers have received no financial support despite their industry being one of the worst hit with drivers' incomes being slashed.
"This evening Karen Mullan and I held an online meeting with taxi drivers from across the north and representatives of the taxi industry to hear once again at first hand thier frustration.
"The Finance Minister made a call on other Executive ministers to bring forward proposals for sectors and workers who have not been able to access financial supports to date. However, drivers are still waiting for the Infrastructure Ministers to come forward with a scheme that will give them the practical support they desperately need.
"Taxi drivers provide an essential service in our communities and are entitled to and deserve support to help them get through this pandemic.
"Taxi drivers also need definitive guidance on how to operate in a way that keeps drivers and passengers safe at this time and helps meets the cost over overheads, such as providing PPE and equipping vehicles, incurred dealing with the pandemic."
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane addressed an online event organised by Stop The War Coalition on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill this evening and said the British government cannot be allowed to put its state agents above the law.
The North Belfast MP said:
“The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill is a direct attack on democracy, human rights and justice.
“The danger of this legislation is that it provides no political or judicial oversight to the most serious of crimes committed by state agents, including murder and torture.
“It would prevent future victims seeking redress through the courts and ensure that those who have exposed wrongdoing in the past would be incapable of doing so in the future.
"Over decades, state agents and their proxies in loyalist death squads effectively had a license to kill and were involved in countless killings of people across the island.
“This included the assassination of my father and human rights lawyer, Pat Finucane, by loyalist death squads acting under the direction of the British state.
“More than 30 years on, my family are still denied the truth.
“State agents and informers cannot be placed above the rule of law.
“They cannot be allowed to act without fear of any accountability or prosecution.
“Instead of concealing the truth and providing further cover for state agents, the British Government must fulfil its commitments made in the Stormont House Agreement and implement the legacy measures in a human rights compliant manner."
The twin issues of a skimpy housing maintenance budget and the €1 million a year spent by Louth County Council on servicing loans on landbanks they own, but cannot build on, were raised in Leinster House last week by Ruairí Ó Murchú TD.
The former Dundalk South councillor raised the local authority’s problems in the chamber during a debate on a Private Members’ motion to ban co-living.
Teachta Ó Murchú used the opportunity to tell Oireachtas members about how local authorities are ‘hamstrung’.
He said: "In Louth County Council there is a major difficulty in that for even the local authority housing we have, we have no maintenance budget.
"Combined with this, we are spending about €1 million a year on servicing the loans on landbanks, some of which were bought at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom on instruction from the Fianna Fáil government at the time.
"Louth County Council has had these landbanks on its books since. Nobody has ever crystallised the losses on them and there have been constant promises from departments but never a solution.
"I spoke to the Minister about this and I believe he will hold a meeting with Louth County Council, to include councillors, elected representatives and the council executive.
"We are talking across the board of mixed developments. We are talking about local authority housing, or council houses, and also affordable cost rentals for those who can afford to pay a fair rent but not necessarily the €1,000, €1,200, €1,400 or €1,600 one could be paying in urban Dundalk at this point.
"If it were not for HAP and the extortionate amounts paid into that scheme, people would be completely without housing. We accept the reality, but the problem is that HAP sets the baseline, so we have a completely dysfunctional system that needs to be fixed.
"Affordable cost-rental accommodation, affordable mortgages and the building of council houses - those are the solutions. We do not need these bonkers battery-cage living places. This was said by people who are now in positions of power while they were in positions over here, so we need follow-through."
Sinn Féin TD for Louth Ruairí Ó Murchú has said that progress on the construction of Narrow Water Bridge will be determined by the Taoiseach’s Shared Island Unit that has half a billion euro to spend over the next five years.
As part of the recent budget announcements, it was revealed that the Taoiseach’s ‘Shared Island Unit’ would receive €100 million a year in funding for the next half a decade.
Arising from the announcement, the Dundalk TD submitted a question for response by Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Wednesday.
The Taoiseach said a number of projects are expected to progress because of the new, ring-fenced cash for the ‘Shared Island Unit’ and added that the unit would give a greater degree of certainty to projects that previously had got lost between stools when handed over to government departments on both sides of the border.
Teachta Ó Murchú said Mr Martin had included the Narrow Water Bridge in a list of projects he wants to see progression on, as well as the A5 motorway, and this is ‘welcome news’.
Teachta Ó Murchú said: “The Taoiseach spoke about the difficulty experienced by the State over the years regarding many projects it agreed to.
“He talked about cross-border projects, such as the Narrow Water bridge and the A5, and promises that were made. When the projects were left with individual departments, they found reasons, probably genuinely good ones, not to proceed with them. They found other things to do.
“While I might have difficulties with some parts of the terms of reference of the Shared Island Unit, I believe the unit is necessary if we are to complete some of the cross-border projects.
“We have all heard talk in the past of possible high-speed rail, particularly on a cross-border basis. This needs to happen.
“Many commuters in the likes of Dundalk use the Enterprise train, which runs from Dublin to Belfast and back. The problem is that, in many cases, it only runs every two hours.
“We need to have a greater level of connectivity and ensure more trips so it will be more possible to use the rail network for commuting. The price can also be a dissuader. We need to examine this. We have to give people opportunities.”