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Sinn Féin MLA Caoimhe Archibald has said more detail is needed on the Department for Economy's High Street Voucher Scheme. 

Speaking after receiving a briefing at the Economy Committee, the party's economy spokesperson said:

“I am concerned at the lack of detail and unanswered questions on the Department of Economy’s High Street Voucher Scheme.

“When questioned, officials could not confirm where and what the voucher could be spent on and would not give firm answers to the economic impact of the scheme. 

“More than half the money allocated for economic recovery is going towards this scheme and it is crucial that it is fit for purpose and helps boost the local economy.

“The Minister and the department need to get their act together quickly if this scheme is to be up and running by August as intended and if it is to be successful.

“I will continue to press the Minister and seek answers on this scheme.” 

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Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly has said it beggars belief that there could not be evidence to prosecute former RUC officers for the killings of four people, including a nine year-old boy, in Belfast in August 1969. 

Gerry Kelly said: 

“This is another day of disappointment for the families of those killed by the RUC, including nine year-old Patrick Rooney, in August 1969 in Belfast. 

“They were killed on the streets and in their homes when the RUC raked homes with gunfire, firing indiscriminately at civilians.  

“Their families have now been told in this Police Ombudsman’s report that the RUC officers responsible for killing their loved ones were not held to account because of investigative failings and destruction of evidence, and as a result there will be no prosecutions. 

“They have been waiting for more than 50 years for answers about the deaths of their loved ones and are still waiting. 

“It beggars belief that there could be such little evidence, despite these incidents and others forming the basis of the Scarman Report at the time. 

“These families are entitled to the truth and we will continue to stand in solidarity with them in their campaign.

“This action will make more and more people believe that they won’t get justice or equality of justice from this or any British government.”

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Defence, John Brady TD, has expressed deep concern at the levels of violence being committed by Police against protestors in Colombia.

Teachta Brady said:

"This last week we have witnessed shocking events in Colombia, where Police have been responsible for the deaths of anywhere between 18 or 31 killings of protestors.

"Ordinary Colombians had taken to the streets to protest planned tax reforms, which have since been withdrawn, and to highlight the failure of the Colombian Government to deal with human rights abuses, and to advance the Colombian Peace Process.

"In the resulting attack on civilians, not only are the Colombian Police engaged in a systematic campaign of violence against protestors, but they are doing so with the clear and unapologetic approval of the political leadership in Colombia.

"In addition, there are reports of a number of sexual assaults that were carried out by Police against protestors. Police appear to be engaged in the practice of firing tear gas canisters at point blank range into the faces of protestors. This sinister practice, first seen in Chile, is leading to serious eye injuries, with at least one protestor having lost the sight in one eye.

“Despite the clamour of protest and outrage from across the globe, we have seen little but a tepid response from our own government.

"I want to clearly call upon the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, and the Irish Ambassador to Colombia, Alison Kinvara, to make firm and unambiguous statements condemn the Police violence, and to defend the right of the Colombian people to peaceful protest.”

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Addiction, Recovery and Wellbeing, Thomas Gould TD, has today welcomed news that the Taoiseach will explore the significant increase in addiction rehabilitation waiting times.

Teachta Gould said:

“109 beds were lost in rehabilitation facilities nationally last year. We’ve seen in some places wait times doubled. Figures provided to me by the HSE show that at least 1728 people waited over 12 months across the state from March 2019 to date. Many facilities don’t keep waiting lists or were closed for large portions of 2020.

“When I asked the Minister about this, he informed me that there was nothing the HSE could do about it. The Taoiseach may have denied that today but it was a written response from the Minister.

“Minister Feighan’s apathy to this situation is not going unnoticed.

“There was plenty that could have been done about it and could still be done to replace the beds that are closed. Minister Feighan chose instead to bury his head in the sand on this issue.

“I will send on the full figures to the Taoiseach today that highlight the serious concerns here.

“Rather than waiting until already scandalous waiting times are at crisis point and lives are lost, the government need to address this now.

“A commitment was given in Budget 2021 that 150 residential treatment episodes would be made available this year. What the Minister can’t seem to decide is if these are to replace lost episodes or in addition to the replacements.

“A proactive approach could have prevented this situation in the first place. The Minister took his eye off the ball here. He needs to step up now and sort this.

“People in addiction work hard enough to get to the point that they’ve been approved for residential treatment. Waiting 6 months from that assessment to their stay is a recipe for disaster."

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Further and Higher Education, Rose Conway-Walsh TD, has accused the government of continuing to fail apprentices over a year into the pandemic.

Teachta Conway-Walsh said:

“Half of all apprentices are on a waiting list to access the state provided training they need to advance in their apprenticeship. 

“I have been highlighting these issues with the department for months. Despite assurances that action would be taken, waiting lists continue to spiral out of control.

“Right now, 9,071 apprentices are waiting to access off-the-job training. Many more an enrolled in course that they are not able to complete.

“Apprentices I have spoken with feel abandoned. This has serious implications for not only their educations, but also their income. Through no fault of their own, many apprentices will be trapped on apprentice wages for years longer than they should.

“Despite the amazing efforts of administrators and teaching staff across the country, apprentices are being badly let down when it comes to getting the education they need.

“Covid has seriously disrupted training but the government has had sufficient time to put measures and additional capacity in place to at least mitigate the situation. However, we are seeing waiting list continue to grow.

“This is not solely the result of Covid. A lack of interest and investment in apprenticeship training predates the pandemic. This is evident in the fact that 3,651 apprentices have been waiting over a year to access their course.

“Now we are facing a backlog of training that needs to be done to allow apprentices to become qualified tradespeople and other forms of professionals.

“Every one of these apprentices represent tradespeople and other professionals sorely needed for the post-pandemic recovery."

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Sinn Féin spokesperson for Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD has urged the Department of Education to provide clarity to schools, and families of children with special educational needs, by urgently releasing the guidance for this year’s Summer Provision Programme.

Teachta Ó Laoghaire said:

“Schools have been left in the lurch by the Department of Education. They are still waiting essential guidance and information on how Summer Provision will work this year, less than eight weeks before many of these programmes are set to begin.

“In a normal year, the guidance would already have been released to schools. Given the additional Covid-related considerations schools will have to make this year, you would have expected the Minister to make sure schools were given this guidance earlier than usual, not later.

“This delay points to a continuing lack of respect for schools and teachers, who will now be expected to put together a comprehensive summer programme in the space of just a few weeks when the guidance is eventually released. It is not good enough.

“The Department need to provide immediate clarity on key areas, they need to confirm that the greater number of children eligible to participate last year will continue this year, and they need to confirm that SNAs can continue to facilitate this programme.

“Disincentives for teachers and SNAs participating must also be removed, including delays in pay and PUP obstacles.

“The Minister needs to urgently bring forward the guidelines, so that the number of spaces available can be maximised and the largest possible number of children can avail of the programme this summer."

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MacManus welcomes progress made in EU Rail Passenger Rights Proposals

Sinn Féin MEP praises progress on enhanced Rights of Passengers with Mobility issues

Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus has welcomed progress on proposals to make rail services more accessible and strengthen the rights of passengers. 

MacManus said:

“Last week the European Parliament voted on amendments to the second reading of the EUs Rail passengers’ rights and obligations proposals. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to engage with these proposals and voted on amendments to strengthen the rights of rail passengers.”

“Among some of the proposals MEPs voted on was to reduce the notice period passengers with certain mobility issues need to give the services should they require assistance boarding or disembarking a train. I was pleased to vote to reduce the notice period required from 24 to 12 hours. Proposals like this are vital if we are committed to offering everyone access to a decent and reliable transport system.

The Midlands Northwest MEP also argued that the growing demand for rail services in Ireland highlights the need for increased investment in rail services, in particular to reopen the Western Rail Corridor.

“In 2019 Iarnród Éireann recorded over 50 million passenger journeys, its highest ever number. Rail is becoming an increasingly attractive transport option, and as we move towards a low carbon future, it’s vital that we continue to increase rail usage in Ireland. These measures will help to achieve that by increasing accessibility and consumer confidence.”

MacManus said rail investment could address major regional imbalances that have damaged the Midlands Northwest region. “To accommodate this growing demand for rail, it’s important that we also invest in increased rail services to provide rail transport as an option to communities across the country. In particular we need the Western Rail Corridor re-opened to provide rail transport in the regions that need it most. The Navan line in Co. Meath is of similar importance and would be hugely beneficial to that area. Sinn Féin have been at the forefront of this issue throughout Ireland and will continue to fight for the development of rail networks in rural Ireland.”

The Midlands Northwest MEP concluded by highlighting the benefits rail investment would bring to the region. “Investing in rail would not only help us reach our climate targets, but it would also help address regional imbalances and contribute significantly to reversing the decline of the Midlands Northwest region. The economic benefits it would bring would provide an enormous boost to communities across the region and allow us to compete with other regions in attracting both foreign and indigenous investment, growing jobs and ensuring that our communities have a sustainable future.” ENDS

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Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD has called on the Taoiseach to end the tax sweetheart deals that facilitate wealthy investment funds in “gobbling up” housing at the expense of ordinary people trying to buy a home.

Teachta McDonald said the tax advantages these funds enjoy were designed and defended by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and that first time buyers like those in Mullen Park in Maynooth are being squeezed out of the market as a result.

Speaking at Leaders Questions this afternoon, Teachta McDonald said:

“Government policy to incentivise and support investment funds to buy up housing across the state. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rolled out the red carpet for them with a range of sweetheart tax advantages. They pay no corporation tax, no capital gains tax, minimal stamp duty and no tax on the extortionate rents they charge.

“This cushy regime gives massive financial advantages to wealthy investment funds. No person trying to buy a home could possibly compete with them. What happened at Mullen Park and what is happening elsewhere is a direct result of a policy designed and defended time and again by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. 

“The consequence is that these big wealthy funds can swoop in and gobble up those houses that workers and families should expect to be able to afford. We do not need a long-winded examination of this situation. The evidence of government policy is there to be seen on the ground. It is seen in the shattered hopes of those who thought they would buy a home in Mullen Park.

“This is wrong and it needs to stop. The Taoiseach says it is unacceptable. He should follow his words with actions and end the sweetheart arrangements for these funds and legislate to prevent them from buying up housing in bulk.”

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Social Protection Claire Kerrane TD has today introduced a Bill to remove the current cliff edge experienced by Lone Parents when their youngest child turns seven.

Once a child turns seven, the lone parent no longer qualifies for the One Parent Family Payment and instead moves onto a Jobseekers Transition Payment.

While eligibility for both payments includes the lone parent proving he/she has sought maintenance from the non-custodial parent, the non-custodial parent is only pursued by the Department for a contribution to the One Parent Family Payment.

Speaking on introducing the Bill, Teachta Kerrane said:

“Current social welfare payments for Lone Parents are not designed to support lone parent families, to prevent poverty or to encourage the payment of child maintenance from the non-custodial parent.

“While there is an onus on the Lone Parent to prove they have sought maintenance in order to qualify for both the One Parent Family Payment and Jobseekers Transition, both are treated very differently.

“We have a disturbing situation where the Department of Social Protection pursue non-custodial parents, not to benefit or financially support their child, but to recoup their own costs. They only do this for the One Parent Family Payment and so, once a child turns seven, the obligation on the non-custodial parent to contribute ends.

“Once a child turns seven, the non-custodial parent receives a letter from the Department of Social Protection to say that they are no longer liable to contribute to the child.

“As a result, there is huge drop in the number of lone parents receiving child maintenance payments once the Liable Relative Clause runs out. To make matters worse, lone parents are required to pursue child maintenance by themselves in order to receive the Jobseekers Transitional Payment – this means many lone parents face a cliff-edge regarding the payments they receive.

“We are proposing that the Liable Parent Clause be extended to include children beyond the age of seven. If passed, this will see non-custodial parents continuing to make a contribution beyond their child turning seven.

“We have also seen, from research and consultation with organisations representing lone parents, that continued child maintenance payments results in higher visitation and longer-term contact with non-custodial parents.

“While we ultimately need an established Child Maintenance Service, these proposed changes will provide some much-needed support for lone parents and their families in the meantime.”

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD has expressed his concern that the Minister for Education has continued to ignore high risk families and their calls to be facilitated with remote learning.

This comes following reports that some 4,500 children did not return to school when they reopened following Covid closures last year.

Teachta Ó Laoghaire said:

“The figures released today are stark. I have no doubt that contained within these numbers are many high risk families, who have been stuck in a limbo since the pandemic began, with little to no support from the Minister for Education.

“Many families are simply not in a position to send their kids back to school, because a member of their family has a medical vulnerability and the risks are just too high, because even though there are improvements, the numbers are still high. 

"These children are losing out on their education as a result, which is completely unacceptable.

“I have repeatedly asked the Minister to step in and ensure remote learning is facilitated for these students. 

"In response, the Minister has repeatedly stated that she would not do so, as school is the best place for students to learn.

“This misses the point entirely. I am sure these families would love to be sending their children back into the classroom and to their friends, but they simply can’t take the risk at this point.

"There does need to be a common sense approach here, and a sensitive attitude taken by Department, schools and by Túsla.

"The overwhelming majority of these parents want their children to be in schools, they know it is the best place to learn provided it is safe. 

"However from their point of view, it is necessity for these families to keep their family unit safe and well.

“It is unfair that a child would be forced to go to school, worried that they may be bringing home illness to their high risk parent. 

"Indeed, figures from the Irish Secondary Level Students’ Union survey before Christmas showed that this is one of the top issues that students themselves are worried about.

“Students are dealing with enough stress and anxiety at the moment without this additional worry. Any child who has a high risk family member at home should be allowed to stay at home, and should be facilitated with remote learning.

“The Government cannot continue to ignore the plight of vulnerable families."

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Sinn Féin Education spokesperson Pat Sheehan MLA has expressed concern at the findings of a recent audit office report on education expenditure in the north. 

Speaking following the publication of the Audit Office's 'Closing the Gap, Social Deprivation and links to Educational Attainment' report, the West Belfast MLA said:

"The findings of this latest report are concerning. 

“Now is the time to look at how our schools are funded and how we invest in our children and young people. 

"I was disappointed to find out recently that a review of the common funding scheme was shelved due to the onset of COVID. This Audit Office report should encourage officials in the Department of Education to revisit that review with a sense of urgency. 

"The Audit Office report raised an important point around the issue of accountability and how money intended for targeting social need was spent. This shouldn't be about burdening our school leaders with more paperwork and bureaucracy but instead we should be striving to ensure our schools are adequately funded so that money designated to tackle disadvantage can be spent on exactly that and not filling the gaps left by a decade of Tory cuts. 

"What we need now is for the Education Minister to use all of this evidence to put in place an action plan to support these children and young people in reaching their full potential." 

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Health David Cullinane TD has called for urgent action on failures exposed in the Ombudsman 'wasted lives' report.

He said that the state and HSE have failed vulnerable adults by placing them in inappropriate accommodation where they have felt completely abandoned.

Teachta Cullinane said:

“This report has exposed a systemic failure by the state and the HSE when it comes to vulnerable adults, and government must act urgently on its findings.

“The fact that hundreds of people under 65 have been placed in nursing homes instead of more appropriate accommodation is shameful.

“Many people feel trapped, have described their circumstances as ‘like prison' - their fundamental rights are being denied.

“What they have described is highly distressing and many of these people should have been supported in independent living.

“It is nothing short of abandonment with serious deficits in informed consent.

“They have been dropped into a system designed for a very different demographic, with poor records on their circumstances and in the belief that it would be temporary situation.

“It is never appropriate to place someone in a dementia unit, for example, when they do not have dementia, and expect them to live there for years.

“Governments have committed for years to put in place emergency accommodation for these individuals with a view to supporting independent living or otherwise living at home.

“The deficits in records on these individuals and the lack of a strategy to address the issue is extremely concerning. It would seem there was no intention to right this wrong.

“The Minister must urgently produce a strategy to fix this and get these individuals the appropriate supports they need."

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Sinn Féin MLA Caoimhe Archibald has condemned those behind a security alert in Coleraine. 

The East Derry MLA said: 

"A security alert caused by reports of a suspicious object in the Brooke Street area of Coleraine has brought nothing but disruption to the area. 

"Local residents have been evacuation from their homes as a result of this alert.

"Those behind this alert have nothing to offer the people of Coleraine and need to end these futile actions immediately."

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Sinn Féin MLA Declan McAleer has said the DUP should stop playing political football with the north-south arrangements on agriculture and rural affairs.

The party’s agriculture spokesperson said:

"It is deeply regrettable that the DUP are playing political football with the north-south arrangements on agriculture and rural affairs.

"Agriculture and in particular agri-food and dairy processing have always been an island wide industry. 

"There are major issues such as TB, ammonia and animal health that have major influences on the agriculture industry and it is essential that both parts of the island are co-ordinated on these major issues because what happens in one jurisdiction directly impacts on the other. 

"It is also incredible that at a time when we are lobbying for the north to be included in the PGI bid for Irish grass-fed beef, that the DUP are undermining the very institutions that could help make this possible . 

"At this crucial time as we cautiously emerge from the COVID pandemic against a backdrop of an enforced Brexit that has caused so much damage to the industry the last thing rural communities need is for the DUP to bring their internal party turmoil into the north-south arrangements for agriculture and rural affairs.”

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Sinn Féin MLA Linda Dillon has said she shares the disappointment of the family of Joe McCann at the collapse of a trial into his murder. 

Linda Dillon said: 

"I note with concern the collapse of the trial of former British soldiers for the murder of Joe McCann and share the disappointment of the McCann family. 

"I also share the family's concerns at the way in which the investigation was conducted and the failure of the PSNI to interview the soldiers charged after the case was referred to them. 

"We will continue to support the family as they discuss their next move in their campaign for truth and justice. 

"This ruling highlights the need for the implementation of already agreed mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the past in a human rights compliant manner."

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Sinn Fein Councillor Ronan McLaughlin has condemned the ‘backdoor privatisation’ of Malone House. 

 

Councillor McLaughlin said:

 

“This evening in Belfast City Council, the DUP, Alliance Party and others have voted through the ‘backdoor privatisation’ of Malone House.

 

“Malone House has been a frequent host of weddings and other engagements for many years, and with a sustainable model the premises could have significant economic potential. 

 

“Sinn Fein proposed to invest in Malone House while retaining the management of the facility under Belfast City Council and sought to develop a new model which would allow Malone House to prosper, with the profits being reinvested in workers and services. 

 

“Instead, Councillors have regrettably voted through a proposal which will allow a private company to take over the running of a public asset.

 

“This is a short-sighted and unambitious move by these parties.

 

"Sinn Fein will continue to work to retain public assets in the hands of the people of this city." 

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Agriculture, Matt Carthy TD, has said that the dramatic increase in factory feedlots in recent years ‘is a certain factor’ in the poor beef prices farmers receive.  

He has written to Minister Charlie McConalogue requesting that the department carry out a comprehensive analysis of the impacts of Factory owned feedlots in the market, including their impact on prices and the effect on the environment.

In response to a parliamentary question, it was revealed to Teachta Carthy that the number of slaughtered cattle at Controlled Finishing Units (CFUs), which the department used as a proxy for factory feedlots, had increased by over 34% between 2015 and 2020. 

Teachta Carthy said: 

“The intervention of factory feedlot cattle is a certain significant factor in the stagnating beef prices received by farmers.  Figures from a recent Parliamentary Question response I received confirm that, but also raise questions as to the validity of the department's metrics. 

“The Department has reported 295,000 cattle slaughtered from CFUs in 2018, however contemporary reporting compiled independently but based upon departmental data placed this figure in excess of 315,000.  This discrepancy needs to be explained. 

“But, regardless, what the Departments own figures do indicate is an increase of over 33% since 2017. 

“The meat industry has been telling farmers since the onset of Covid-19, that demand in the hospitality sector has been ‘decimated’ with retail increases not sufficient to offset the effect. 

“They should also explain why, in that case, feedlot slaughter figures for the first two months of 2021 were comparable to 2020. 

“Unfortunately, the government have never carried out a comprehensive analysis of the element in meat production, including its impact on prices and its environmental affects.  Statutory agencies such as Competition and Consumer Protection Commission have appeared as at best disinterested in farmers questions as to whether this level of market presence presents the ability to control price. 

“The continued growth of factory feedlots presents an existential threat to the Irish beef product.  Consumers all over the world purchase Irish beef on the back of the image of the farmer in the field alongside their cows and calves. But, if the proportion of beef being produced in this country coming from factory feedlots continues to grow then so too will that image. 

“By its very nature, beef produced through this style of more industrialised agriculture is less environmentally sustainable. 

“I have written to Minister Charlie McConalogue requesting that his department carry out a comprehensive analysis of Factory Feedlot production to include its impact on prices, effect on the environment and its potential to undermine the marketing of Irish beef into the future.”

The Parliamentary Question and response are available to view at this link

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Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has thanked Martina Anderson MLA and Karen Mullan MLA  for their tireless dedication and commitment to the party and to the people of Derry.  Her comments follow confirmation by both MLAs that they will not contest the forthcoming Assembly election. 

Ms. McDonald said:

“I want to thank Martina and Karen for their tireless dedication to Sinn Féin and to the people of Derry and to welcome their commitment to help in the work of rebuilding the party in the city.

“We owe a special thanks to their families who have supported them in their work as public representatives  

“As a long-time member of our national leadership Martina has always led from the front, as an activist, a Minister, an MEP and  MLA and she will continue to lead as the prospect of a referendum on Irish Unity comes ever closer. 

“I acknowledge that the process of reorganisation and change is challenging but it is my belief that our best days lie ahead in Derry and nationally as a new generation of republicans come forward.  

“Sinn Féin is on the cusp of leading government, north and south and of achieving a referendum of Irish Unity. A strong, vibrant party in Derry will drive change in Foyle and across Ireland.” 

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Sinn Féin MLA Colm Gildernew has welcomed the news that partners will be allowed to accompany expectant mothers to prenatal appointments and births from 7 May. 

The party’s health spokesperson said: 

“I welcome confirmation that from Friday partners can again company expectant mothers to prenatal appointments and births. 

“This is great news and a relief for many families across the north. 

“We are continuing to make great progress on the pathway to recovery and today’s announcement is another step on that path."

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD, has urged the Government not to let the Online Safety Bill fall to the wayside, given the huge impact cyberbullying is having on children across the state.

Speaking at today’s Oireachtas Education Committee session on Bullying and Mental Health in school-aged children, Teachta Ó Laoghaire said:

“Bullying can have a profound effect, not just on the children involved, but on their parents and siblings as well.

“The prevalence of social media in recent years has brought with it a stark increase in cyberbullying.

“Where previously there might have been respite when you left the school grounds, social media has enabled bullying to follow young people home through their phone.

“We have been pushing for the Government to act on the creation of a Digital Safety Commissioner since 2017. The Government’s Online Safety Bill has been gathering dust, meanwhile many children are facing extraordinarily difficult situations of bullying every day.

“At the Education Committee today, I raised with the Ombudsman for Children the urgent need to progress the Online Safety Bill, and quickly, to begin to tackle this massive issue.

“I also raised the need for uniform, inclusive educational programmes such as RSE and SPHE to be implemented across all schools.

“We know that a lack of understanding and stereotyping can lead to bullying in the school setting. Without inclusive programmes that apply across all schools regardless of a school’s ethos, a lack of understanding around differing ethnicities, identities, sexual orientations and family circumstances may only continue.

“We need to equip teachers with the skills, both to educate students on the causes and effects of bullying, and to tackle bullying directly if it rears its ugly head within a school.

“The huge impact bullying can have cannot be understated. I would urge the Government to recognise this, and to make the Online Safety Bill a priority."

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