Adjournment Debate.

Industrial Relations.

I thank whoever chooses the matters to be discussed on the Adjournment for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening. I tabled this matter because over the weekend I remembered that some time ago the chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, Kieran Mulvey — whom I know well; he is a very able person — said, to great fanfare, that he would meet all the heads of the various trade unions for private discussions. Since then there has been a long silence, and I have no way of finding out what happened except by tabling a matter on the Adjournment. I am glad of the opportunity to do so.

I knew Kieran Mulvey particularly well during the years when he was the general secretary of the ASTI. Later, when I became Minister for Education, I had extensive and regular interaction with the various trade unions. I always thought it was a good thing that in all my time as Minister I did not have a row with any of the teachers' trade unions. We managed to keep a friendship going, although we had tough meetings and there were times when things were extremely difficult. All in all, however, we managed.

Since then I have not seen much of Mr. Mulvey, although I know what he has been doing, and I thought his initiative to meet with the trade union heads was a remarkable one. Any country will benefit from decent social relationships between the Government and all interested parties. When there is good social cohesion, things go better. There are many people within the trade union movement — just as there are many in the Dáil and throughout the country — who have the best interests of the country at heart and wish to see matters moving along in a more tranquil way.

It does the country no good to be in a situation in which people are not getting the services they require. I crossed the street today and met a woman crying her eyes out outside the Passport Office because she could not get in. She told me her tale and explained the sensitive and difficult situation she was in. I thought it was so cruel that she could not go in and obtain what she legitimately sought, which was to update her passport. Equally, I had four calls this evening from people who could not access social welfare offices. It is incorrect to target those vulnerable people.

I am not faulting the trade unions. They have their job to do and we have ours. Our job is to govern the country, while theirs is to put across their points of view. However, I do not like the way in which vulnerable people — in particular, those who need services badly — are being denied. It is not affecting the political class because, by and large, we will get our business done, but it is affecting those who most need public services.

I hope that when the Minister of State with responsibility for labour affairs replies to me he will have something of substance to say. People are waiting to hear what is happening. I am aware that there may be back-channels of communication and that talks may be going on. I was particularly interested in the attitude of Mr. Mulvey and his wish to engage with the heads of the trade unions so that he could seek out common ground.

We all wish to see the country move forward and to see ourselves coming out of the Slough of Despond. We wish to see things brighten up for all of us — as consumers, as participants, as people living in this land — but we cannot do so unless there are harmonious relationships between all. I hope there will be a resumption of talks with the trade unions and that they, in turn, will see that it is not right to target those who are vulnerable and to leave the weakest unaided in difficult circumstances such as I heard about today.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Calleary, for coming to the House. He occupies an office that I once occupied — the nicest office in town, if the truth be known. Is that right?

He can take it or leave it, he is saying.

I hope the work of Kieran Mulvey and his comings and goings with the trade unions have yielded some fruit. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

I thank Deputy O'Rourke for raising the matter and acknowledge her service as one of my predecessors. I will not comment on the office as I do not have that much experience in that regard.

As the Deputy stated, the chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, spoke on RTE's "The Week in Politics" on 24 January about the availability of the Labour Relations Commission to facilitate and assist, in any appropriate way, a process of dialogue between the parties involved in the current industrial action in the public service. I should point out that there are ongoing contacts, as a matter of course, between public service management and unions, both in the context of formal industrial relations processes and regarding the conduct of the current industrial action.

Beyond these operational contacts, the Government believes it would be desirable that both public service unions and management would engage on the wider transformation agenda and the future development of public services and public service employment. However, everyone recognises that the context must be right. There must be a shared understanding of the parameters of any engagement and a willingness to explore what potential exists within those parameters.

Any industrial action is regrettable, particularly when it impacts on service delivery to the public. We all know of cases similar to that described by Deputy O'Rourke. Everything possible is being done to minimise any impact. Whereas the right of unions to take industrial action can be acknowledged, this must be tempered by the obligation to provide a service to the taxpayer, particularly in the areas referred to by Deputy O'Rourke.

As the Taoiseach stated in the House in recent days, the legitimate concerns of public servants will not be advanced in any way through industrial conflict. The Government welcomes recent comments from figures on the trade union side to the effect that an agreed solution to the current difficulties is both desirable and possible. There is a shared view on the sort of changes across the public service that would produce greater efficiency, better services for the public and — as important — more satisfactory working conditions for public servants. It is through engagement on that agenda, rather than industrial action, that the issues of concern to public servants can be properly addressed.

Public service transformation remains a key priority for this Government. Far from being hostile to the public service, the Government is committed to a public service worthy of the best traditions of those who have worked tirelessly to develop our State and its institutions over many decades. We believe that the public interest and the long-term interest of public servants coincide in creating a public service of which we can be proud, and equally, a public service which we can afford, both now and into the long term.

Both the Government, especially in its role as employer, and trade unions recognise that change is important, and both sides know what needs to be done in each sector to achieve change. It is important for the public service and the citizen that there is engagement on this reform agenda.

I am acutely aware of the difficulty that the reductions in public service pay are causing people on a personal basis but the Government had to take these decisions to stabilise the public finances. We did this not because we wanted to, but because we had to. They are simply a matter of budgetary necessity in these extraordinarily difficult times.

Ultimately, it is only through real and lasting change based on constant renewal, redesigning how we do our business and fully applying the potential of new technology and challenging accepted ways of working and organisational structures that those who work in the public service will be able to sustain their standard of living. The surest route to secure and stable income levels is to embrace change. There are well-established channels of communication with representatives of the trade unions in the public service and I emphasise that these can be used to signal a willingness to engage in dialogue and pursue a process of meaningful engagement on the challenges facing us.

Official Engagements.

This issue arose from two incidents, the visit of the ambassador of Israel to Carrickmacross and then the decision of Carrickmacross Town Council to remove the page which he had signed from the distinguished visitors book. I regret the decision to remove the page and the nature of the protest on the day of the ambassador's visit.

When an ambassador visits a town, he or she should be welcomed and treated with respect in a way that reflects their status as a diplomat and personal dignity. This does mean that one necessarily approves of the policies of his or her government. I met very many people in Carrickmacross at the weekend and they all believe that the ambassador should have been shown such respect and courtesy.

I understand the feelings shared by all the members of Carrickmacross Town Council and I too feel strongly about the injustices which we see in Gaza and the West Bank on a continuing basis. I met the Israeli ambassador when he visited Carrickmacross on that day and spent one hour in discussion with him. I was glad of the opportunity to have such discussion and impressed on him the seriousness of Ireland's engagement on the issue of concern.

I have visited the Middle East twice over the past two years. Last July, I was a member of a delegation from the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs which visited Gaza at the invitation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, where we met its director, Mr. John Ging. During that visit we saw, at first hand, the ongoing dire humanitarian consequences for the civilian population as a result of the ongoing Israeli blockade. We published a report on our visit and set out in direct and unambiguous terms our view that it is not reasonable or right for Israel to use the complexity of the issues involved as justification for allowing the intolerable humanitarian conditions which prevail in the West Bank and, more particularly, in Gaza to continue.

I have no qualms about being direct and honest in criticising Israel where appropriate. I have supported the findings of the Goldstone report, which calls on Israel and the relevant Palestinian authorities to launch appropriate investigations into allegations of war crimes committed during the Gaza conflict which are independent and in conformity with international standards. I wish to see an end to violence on both sides.

I spoke out in this House when Israel forcibly returned to Gaza a young Bethlehem university student, Berlanty Assam, without just cause. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and the vast majority of Members in this House actively support a two-state solution which would provide peace and security on both sides in the Middle East. This can only happen through a negotiated settlement. We know better than most in Northern Ireland the futility of overreaction and the politics of the last atrocity, and it was when Senator George Mitchell came to Ireland and that dialogue commenced seriously that we made progress. I wish him the same success in the Middle East as he had here.

I cannot support the obliteration of the name of the Israeli ambassador from the records of Carrickmacross Town Council. The political way forward is dialogue and negotiation. We must uphold democracy and principles of respecting the right to meet and to listen to those with whom we may not always agree politically. We have a responsibility to remain engaged and to remain committed to finding a solution in the Middle East. Refusing to recognise and respect the ambassador of Israel will not in any way contribute to that goal.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, have asked me to send their regrets but they both have engagements. Responding to articles which appeared in the Irish, British and Israeli media, the Minister for Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Tuesday regretting the decision of the Carrickmacross Town Council to remove the signature of the Israeli ambassador from the council's distinguished visitors book.

I am pleased to have the opportunity this evening to read the Minister's statement into the record of the House. The Minister said:

I fully understand and share the deep concerns which many people in Ireland feel in regard to Israel's policies on a number of issues, including the settlement of east Jerusalem and the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza, as well as the allegations of the use of forged Irish passports by Israeli agents. I made our concerns on these matters known last week when I met the Israeli Foreign Minister and visited Gaza. However, it is a basic principle of relations between states that we treat each other's diplomatic representatives with civility and respect, regardless of any policy differences. To do otherwise would seriously undermine the ability of states to conduct international relations.

Ambassadors represent not just their governments but their peoples. In turn, the way that foreign ambassadors are welcomed and received in Ireland says something about us as a people. Foreign ambassadors are free to travel in Ireland and I encourage them to do so. If citizens here feel moved to protest against the policies of the governments they represent, which they have the right to do, I would ask that the do so peacefully and in a way that respects the diplomatic status and personal dignity of the ambassador.

It is indeed the case that many people in Ireland share the Government's deep concerns about Israel's policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, including restrictions on movement, construction of illegal settlements, evictions of families and demolition of their homes, as well as the continuing blockade of Gaza. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, on behalf of the Government, has been active and indeed outspoken on these issues at EU and UN level. The Minister has taken every opportunity to make these concerns known directly to Israeli leaders, including to Israeli Ministers and to the Israeli ambassador here in Dublin.

Last week, the Minister became the first EU Minister for a year to visit Gaza. He was determined to visit Gaza to see for himself the humanitarian situation in the strip. Having been denied entry by Israel, he obtained the agreement of the Egyptian Government to entry through the Rafa crossing. Speaking from Gaza, he made a direct public appeal for the lifting of the Israeli blockade. It is understandable that people may wish to make clear their own concerns, to voice protests and to do something about these issues. However, this should not extend to using insulting behaviour towards the Israeli ambassador, or indeed, any other diplomatic representative.

We expect our own ambassadors abroad to be able to travel and meet people in the countries to which we send them and sometimes to deliver unwelcome messages, safely and with respect for their personal dignity and their status as representatives of Ireland. If we want our ambassador in Israel — or anywhere else — to be heard with courtesy and respect, we must reciprocate those practices here. It would be misguided to remove the page in the visitors' book which the ambassador of Israel had been invited to sign, regardless of who invited him and in whose presence he signed. I understand that those who decided to do so were motivated by a desire to protest against Israeli Government policies, but to treat the ambassador as a pariah, to try literally to erase the fact of his visit from the record, was excessive and could be misunderstood.

Israeli citizens and Israel's supporters around the world are foremost among the people we are trying to reach and whose views we are trying to influence. Indeed, we should not overlook the fact that the strongest, most dogged and most consistent opponents of many of the Israeli Government policies we decry are in fact among the citizens of Israel. For those who would rather Ireland's messages were not heard, nothing could be more welcome than a story such as this. It can and will be used to suggest that Irish concerns about Israel are founded not on a concern to right wrongs, but on vehement antipathy bordering on racism. That would of course be grossly untrue, but we must remember that protest taken too far can undermine the force of the very message that those who protest are seeking to convey.

I know that the members of Carrickmacross Town Council considered this question at short notice and I do not doubt the sincerity of the concerns which led them to decide on that occasion as they did. However, now that they have had an opportunity to reflect fully on the issues I have outlined here, I hope that they might wish to reconsider their decision and express their views by more appropriate means.

River Basin Management Plan.

I would like to thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me time to discuss the important matter of the River Shannon basin district. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government needs to update this House on when he will implement and fund the river basin management plan for the River Shannon international river basin district.

Signing off on any plan is the easy part. For this Government, as we know to our cost, implementation and funding are the hard parts and open to an extended timeframe. In light of the severe weather conditions experienced this winter, any delay in implementing and funding this plan will be detrimental to the management of our waterways. When the Minister signed off on the river basin management plan for the River Shannon basin district last October, he had no idea of the flooding that was to result from the unprecedented weather conditions, and which has destroyed our waterways, particularly in the midlands.

The European Union water framework directive, which was adopted in 2000, requires all governments to manage their rivers, canals, lakes, reservoirs, groundwater, protected areas, estuaries and coastal waters. A good status for these waterways must be reached by 2015. In a written reply to a parliamentary question I tabled on this matter, the Minister stated that plans for the Shannon international river basin district would be completed in the coming months. That is an extremely flexible timescale. Could he perhaps pin that down somewhat this evening and tell this House when exactly the plan will be finalised?

Given the lack of input by the Government to the alleviation of the flooding in the midlands, it will be another case of an EU directive deadline not being met. The Shannon is the lifeblood of the midlands, but unless properly managed under the control of one authority, it could become a liability, with a reoccurrence of the devastation caused by the flooding, which destroyed housing, land and silage and led to a loss of income for already hard hit farmers, businesses and householders.

The draft river plan is interestingly entitled "Water Matters", which could be interpreted in a couple of ways. We are particularly aware of the meaning in the midlands, as water is essential to us in so many ways, from its management to its tourism value. However, is the Minister so aware? He has made no real effort at any stage to address the problems of the midlands since this winter's flooding, especially when compared to the focus on Cork and the south.

When the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, of which I am a member, announced plans to visit Cork to assess the flood damage, I refused to go until similar plans were made for the midlands. This problem will be somewhat rectified next week, when the committee will asses the damage to the midlands region with presentations from the county managers of Longford, Westmeath, Galway, Limerick and Roscommon. Stakeholders will be represented such as the Office of Public Works, Waterways Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Central Fisheries Board, the Shannon Regional Fisheries Board, the Electricity Supply Board, Bord na Móna, the Irish Farmers Association and the Heritage Council.

This brings me to another matter which I have highlighted on many occasions in this House, and will continue to do so until it is resolved, namely, the setting up of a Shannon authority to bring the Shannon stakeholders together under one umbrella. I hope to bring a Private Members' Bill on a Shannon authority before the House to highlight the need for such a body. It will propose that a Shannon authority be set up by statute which would have control over river management and development in the Shannon catchment and Shannon navigation areas, from the source of the river to the Shannon Estuary at Limerick. This is essential to control flooding maintenance works, to develop navigation tourism, to produce electric power and to improve farming and forest practices and public health. It is no longer possible for diverse interests to operate in isolation if the problems of the longest waterway in Ireland are to be solved. I would welcome a positive response on the matter this evening.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue tonight.

The River Shannon basin management plan is currently being finalised and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government expects that it will be adopted by the relevant local authorities in the coming months. Significant funding has been provided by the Department over the past number of years to support the development of this plan.

The making of a river basin management plan is a function reserved to local authorities. In December 2008, local authorities published draft river basin management plans, including a draft plan for the River Shannon basin district. These draft plans were open to public consultation for a period of six months up to June 2009, and over 300 submissions from interested parties were received. The plans will be adopted by the relevant local authorities in the coming months.

The transposition of the water framework directive in 2003 saw the establishment of eight river basin districts on the island of Ireland, including the River Shannon basin district. A river basin district project office, funded by the Department, was established in each of the seven districts in the State to co-ordinate the making of river basin management plans with the aim of protecting and improving the water environment within the catchment. Exchequer funding in excess of €8 million has been provided since 2003 to the River Shannon basin district. This funding has supported extensive research work and the operation of the river basin district office for the catchment.

The river basin management planning process has provided a mechanism through which local authorities, the EPA, different Departments and other stakeholders can co-ordinate their actions to achieve the best possible environmental outcomes. The plans will be co-ordinated with other relevant plans, including flood risk management plans to be prepared by the OPW, as part of the implementation of the floods directive.

The process is also being supported by a national advisory committee, which was established in 2009 to co-ordinate work on the finalisation of plans and with a view to overseeing their subsequent implementation. The committee is chaired by the Department and its membership is drawn from the local authorities — the County and City Managers Association — the EPA and key Government Departments, including the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The Shannon River basin management plan, in common with all such plans, will set out the current status of waters in that district, the environmental objectives which it is aimed to achieve and the measures which will be required in order to achieve those objectives. The programmes of measures must be operational by the end of 2012. The plan will cover the period to 2015, with further plans to cover the subsequent periods to 2021 and 2027. The plan will aim to improve waters which are currently classified as less than good status and will aim to preserve the quality of waters which are classified as good or high status.

Grant Payments.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue for discussion on the Adjournment. The difficulty in respect of this matter relates to the fact that the livelihoods of upland farmers in the Owenduff-Nephin Beg range in north and west Mayo are being decimated as a result of the discriminatory way in which their share of modulation money from Europe is calculated. Some €18 million in funding is available to 30,000 Irish sheep farmers and the payments in respect thereof are calculated on the basis of ewe numbers rather than on hectares. In other words, it is done on the basis of 2.5 ewes per hectare.

Problems arise because Nephin Beg is a special protection area, SPA. This means that all sheep farmers operating there have been obliged to drastically reduce their stock numbers as a result of the five-year pilot programme aimed at protecting the range from the effects of overgrazing. Most of these farmers had no choice but to reduce their stock numbers by 30% to 50%. This is a serious impediment because they are obliged to remove their animals from the mountains for prolonged periods. This, in turn, has an effect on the type of farming in which they can engage on their low-lying lands. On one hand, these farmers are suffering because they have been obliged to destock, while, on the other, their payments are being drastically reduced because their grants are calculated on ewe numbers. The simple solution to this problem would be to calculate their payments on the basis of the number of hectares they farm rather than on that of stock numbers or to introduce a special calculation method in respect of SPAs.

The problem to which I refer is confined to the Nephin Beg region and to Connemara in County Galway. As a result, the introduction of a special calculation method would not trigger a series of claims from farmers in other areas. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, is aware of the situation that obtains in Connemara and is sympathetic to the plight of the farmers there.

It is vital that immediate action be taken in order to resolve this matter, particularly in view of the fact that another issue is on the horizon for the farmers of Nephin Beg. I refer to the fact that their entitlement to payment under the new REP scheme will be drastically reduced. Under REPS 4, farmers received €242 per hectare. If the new proposals are accepted, the payment will be reduced to €75 per hectare. This is unfair and unjust and represents another attack on the sheep farmers who are trying to eke out a living in the upland regions.

There is no cost involved to the Exchequer in respect of this matter because what is at issue is modulation money from Europe. This matter relates to fairness and justice. We often discuss fairness and equity in this House. People do not mind taking the pain if they are treated fairly. A group of sheep farmers in the Nephin Beg range have not been treated fairly. Under the new arrangements coming down the track, that will continue to be the case.

I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, to ensure that action is taken. Someone must shout stop.

Fáiltím roimh an deis a thug an Teachta Ó Mathúna dom freagra a thabhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo thar ceann mo chomhghleacaí an tAire Talmhaíochta, Iascaigh agus Bia, an Teachta Breandán Mac Gabhann.

The sheep sector is an important part of the agricultural economy and plays a vital role in preserving our rural economy, landscape and environment. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, is fully aware of the difficulties the sector is facing. In that regard, he has announced a number of initiatives in recent times to assist the sector.

Deputy O'Mahony will be aware that last autumn the Minister announced that payments would be made to eligible farmers under the upland sheep payment — a once-off payment worth €7 million in total and financed from the single farm payment national reserve. Payments in the region of €5 million had issued by the end of last year, with the additional top-up payment from the remaining €2 million due to be paid shortly. The decision to use this funding — the only funding available from the single farm payment national reserve — in this manner was in clear recognition of the particular difficulties being experienced by Irish sheep farmers. The upland sheep payment is payable to those farmers who declared their sheep under the 2007 and the 2008 sheep census and who declared mountain-type grazing under the 2009 disadvantaged areas scheme.

It was decided to use €18 million of the €25 million in additional funding for each of the years 2010 to 2012, inclusive, to which we gained access following the agreement reached under the CAP health check on a grassland sheep scheme to support incomes in the sheep sector. This means that an additional €54 million will be made available to the sector during the next three years. The payment will be made in the form of a grassland sheep area payment, which will place no additional administrative burden on sheep farmers and will mean that the payment of aid can be made by the Department in an efficient and timely manner. The Department is working on the finer details of the scheme in order to ensure that it will meet its objectives. These details are currently being finalised and it is expected that an announcement in respect of the scheme will be made shortly. As further evidence of the Minister's commitment to the sheep sector, an additional €8 million for sheep fencing and mobile handling facilities, to assist sheep farmers in reducing labour input, as part of a new targeted on-farm investment scheme, has also been made available.

With regard to the sheep farmers in the Nephin Beg area, when the single payment scheme was implemented in 2005 the calculation of the payment entitlements of such farmers was based on the years 1997-1998, before destocking commenced. This facility was introduced in the scheme in recognition of the specific circumstances of those sheep farmers who had been obliged to destock under the provisions of a REPS plan, a commonage framework plan or other recognised agri-environment plans. This mechanism allowed those affected farmers to benefit from their full single payment, based on their actual sheep farming activities prior to the necessary destocking. These farmers continue to benefit from that level of single payment.

Special provision has also been made for these farmers under the rules of the disadvantaged areas scheme. Under this scheme, applicants are normally required to have a holding with a minimum stocking level of 0.15 livestock units per forage hectare. However, a special derogation is made for those farmers who have been obliged to destock. Where it is evident that such farmers were obliged, due to the provisions of a REPS plan, a commonage framework plan other agri-environment plan, to destock to the extent that their stocking level has fallen below the minimum level required under the disadvantaged areas scheme. In such circumstances, the stocking level as defined in the relevant plan is deemed acceptable under the scheme, with full payment being made to the farmers concerned subject to the other conditions of the scheme having been satisfied. I am in a position to conclude, therefore, that not only has the Minister made every effort to assist the sheep sector in general but he has also sought special provisions to assist sheep farmers in the Nephin Beg area to whom Deputy O'Mahony refers.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 4 March 2010.