Topical Issue Debate

Public Order Offences

I thank the Minister for being present to discuss this important issue. In the short time available I will make a number of points about what happened at the weekend. I am 29 years of age and one of the youngest Deputies in the Dáil. I was at the concert by the Stone Roses and other bands in the Phoenix Park on Thursday night, and many of my peers, constituents, friends and neighbours attended the concerts in the Phoenix Park over the weekend.

I wish to talk about citizenship. Every citizen in this country who attends an entertainment or music event, a concert or a play has a right to expect to be able to do so safely and securely and to enjoy themselves. That was not the case last Saturday. I have spoken to people who were there. These are young people who would generally go out at the weekends, as young people do. They were afraid of what was happening, felt under threat and felt a sense of menace and aggression. They had never witnessed this at a concert or a musical event previously. Serious questions must be asked of the promoters of this event with regard to the level of security and scrutiny that took place in and around the concert and the Phoenix Park. Were people searched? People who were clearly intoxicated or under the influence of illegal substances were allowed into the concert. Were they searched for weapons and so forth?

We witnessed very serious, violent events. Residents in the Castleknock and Ashtown areas also have a right to be able to go about their business safely and securely. There was a huge amount of negative and anti-social behaviour in those areas, particularly on Saturday night. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

I join my colleague in thanking the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this subject. What happened last weekend should never be allowed to happen again. Concerts are very lucrative events for promoters but it is time we adopted a no tolerance approach. Does the Minister agree with that, particularly in light of the violence, abuse and the damage that occurred? Nine people were stabbed in separate incidents, there were 33 arrests and 70 other charges of public order, drink related and drug related offences. The footage shown on television last week caused great concern to many people.

I welcome the Minister's recent statement that what happened last weekend was unusual, in the first instance, and most unacceptable. I also read with great interest that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, indicated that the Phoenix Park should not be utilised for such concerts again. Carrying knives in such a premeditated manner gives rise to great concern. There is also the selling of drugs and cheap promotional alcohol, which has been the subject of much discussion in this House recently, as well as other substances. We need to target the promoters and ask questions of the Garda. Is the Minister satisfied that sufficient precautions were taken last weekend? Was there adequate security and a sufficient Garda presence, including on the part of the drug and riot squads, the dog unit and the emergency response unit? Does the Minister believe it is time to adopt a no-tolerance approach to such events?

What occurred, particularly on Saturday night, is of major concern. Many years ago, I worked as a security guard at concerts but never saw intoxication at the level I saw in Chapelizod on Thursday and Friday nights. There were people who were in no fit state to walk the streets heading to the concert. How many of them were turned away? Was there a drink tank where people could have recovered instead of going to the concert to have more drink and drugs? Despite some searches by stewards, drink was brought into the concert, and this was consumed on top of the drinks sold at the concert.

There was an inadequate Garda presence and inadequate stewarding in the residential areas that back onto the Phoenix Park. I include Castleknock and Chapelizod in my constituency. Some of the residents felt under siege given the amount of people attending the concerts. In some cases in the past, there were significant traffic problems, but it was the number of people that constituted the problem on this occasion. Some of the gates into the park, which were locked to try to encourage attendees to go a different way, were broken down. There was much dumping in Chapelizod after the concerts. Bottles and clothes of all sorts were dumped in people's gardens. Concert-goers urinated in people's gardens and on their doors.

There ought to be a meeting urgently with the OPW and concert promoters. There is provision for several more concerts. If they are to proceed and the same scenes are repeated, we and the relevant authorities will have failed. I urge the Minister to ensure this meeting will happen quickly and that there will be sufficient stewarding, not only at the concerts but on the way thereto, be it by the Garda or private security companies organised by the promoters. Residents should not suffer the consequences of concerts run for profit. People should be allowed to come and go as they please in the residential areas. The other users of the park should also enjoy this freedom. The park was out of bounds for non-concertgoers in the run-up to and during the various concerts.

Like other Deputies, I am aware of the level of media coverage of the event on Saturday night. I am astonished that, four days after the event, nobody in MCD has been arrested. They should be arrested and should have been arrested as early as Sunday morning given the fallout from the concert in question. MCD has been involved in a PR exercise since Saturday night disclaiming responsibility for what happened, including the attacks, the hospitalisations and the loss of life of certain unfortunate people.

MCD was granted the licence and was responsible for the security. It sold the tickets and walked away with the profits, without even a word of sympathy for the bereaved or those who ended up in hospital. The directors of MCD should be arrested. Were the concerts in our neighbouring jurisdiction, the directors would have been arrested. I refer not only to the United Kingdom but also to the rest of Europe.

I am reminded of the unfortunate Stardust tragedy of 1981. Nobody takes responsibility or accepts the blame, and no one will take the blame for what occurred at Saturday night's concert. This is an Irish way of doing things but I do not agree with it. I am interested in hearing the Minister's views on it.

MCD has not issued a single word of sympathy in any newspaper or statement. It could not even bring itself to sympathise with the Brophy family in County Laois who buried their 21-year-old son Shane this morning. What about the young man from Clonsilla, Lee Scanlon? Is his family not entitled to a word of condolence, at the least? I extend my condolences, as I am sure do other Members. I also extend my condolences to those who ended up in hospital with very serious injuries.

MCD has quite serious questions to answer. The promoters should be arrested.

I thank the Deputies for raising what is clearly a matter of great public concern. I share people's shock and concern over the series of disturbing incidents that took place at a concert in the Phoenix Park last Saturday night. Unfortunately, a number of people engaged in disgraceful and unacceptable conduct.

I am sure Deputies will appreciate that as a number of people are facing charges as a result of what happened on Saturday night, nothing should be said in this House that might prejudice criminal proceedings. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I must be particularly careful about what I say in that context.

It is true that a number of concerts have been held in relatively trouble-free circumstances at the Phoenix Park previously. Therefore, it is important to clarify whether there are particular circumstances surrounding this concert that may have given rise to difficulties. The Garda is reviewing what happened and held an initial meeting with the concert promoters in this context yesterday. I understand that the meeting was useful and that a range of issues was discussed surrounding the event, including those matters of serious concern that are in the public domain, including some of those raised this afternoon. It was agreed that both organisations will carry out a more in-depth review regarding all aspects of the event. The fact is that the arrangements in place on Saturday night did not prevent the type of behaviour that took place. By that reality, it is clear they were not adequate.

I have, of course, been briefed by the Garda Commissioner on Saturday night's events, and we have discussed them on more than one occasion. He will let me have a detailed report following the review that is being undertaken. I am determined that any lessons that can be learned from what happened will be taken fully into account in planning future events. Without commenting in advance of the Commissioner's report on specific arrangements for security at last Saturday's concert, it is worth noting more generally that developments will be taking place in the near future regarding the licensing of the event security sector.

The Private Security Authority regulates the private security industry in the State. Since its inception, it has introduced licensing on a phased basis into various areas of the private security sector. For example, it already licenses both contractors and employees providing door supervisor and security guard services. Many of those working in event security are therefore already licensed and, accordingly, have to meet certain standards or acquire certain qualifications.

In addition to having a role regarding the existing requirements, I have been working for some time on regulations that will lead to the licensing of all individuals working in the event security sector. I expect to finalise those regulations shortly. The Private Security Authority proposes to license all contractors working in the event security area by autumn 2012.

While the vast majority of people who attend concerts and similar events just want to enjoy themselves, I am concerned that the behaviour of a significant number of people at the Phoenix Park last Saturday was clearly unacceptable by any standards. Unfortunately, this was reflected in the number of arrests the Garda had to make. I have had occasion to comment recently on the degree to which excessive alcohol consumption contributes to public disorder and anti-social behaviour. The events of Saturday must underline the need for us all, as a society, to acknowledge the damage which the misuse of alcohol can cause.

Clearly, we all wish that summer-time concerts and similar events would be a time for celebration and enjoyment, especially for young people, not occasions of widespread public disorder. Nor should such events present a threatening atmosphere for those who conduct themselves well while attending them.

For my part as Minister, I will do all in my power to improve our regulatory framework and I have previously stated my intention to introduce additional regulations that will aim to curb the level of excessive drinking. I expect those regulations to be brought into force towards the end of this year. It is also clear that drug taking among concert goers contributed to the disorder that took place. Certainly, one of the issues that the review will have to address is whether sufficient measures were in place to prevent this. I personally received reports of drugs being openly sold during the concert event with no intervention by the personnel who were supposed to be providing security.

While I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of the Garda Commissioner's review, it seems to me that a comprehensive risk assessment has to form part of planning for any event. The reality is that not all concerts pose the same type of issues and we will have to ensure that processes are flexible enough to address that. Put simply, if licences are to be granted, conditions will have to reflect fully a comprehensive risk assessment that takes into account the profile of persons likely to attend any particular type of concert. A relevant issue is the performers and what crowd it is anticipated they will attract. I am not convinced that was adequately assessed by the licensing authority in advance of this particular concert. On the one hand, we have to allow people to enjoy themselves; on the other, we have to be realistic about addressing the public order risks involved.

The Garda will continue to have my full support in upholding public order for the benefit of the law-abiding majority of our people. It is right that I should make it clear that the Garda is determined to pursue fully anyone who engaged in criminal behaviour last Saturday night.

As there are only four minutes remaining, I must be strict and allow one minute per Deputy.

I thank the Minister for his response. I express my condolences to the families that lost loved ones this weekend, including the Scanlons. Will the Minister assure residents in the Castleknock-Ashtown area that something like this will never be allowed to recur and that MCD will not be granted licences for future events of this type unless it can guarantee the security and safety of attendees in so far as is practicable? The tickets were expensive, €60 and upwards. Given that people spent a great deal of money in these difficult times, the least they can expect is that they, their children or loved ones can attend concerts safely.

Will the Minister elaborate on his discussions with the Garda Commissioner? Is the Commissioner satisfied that sufficient numbers of gardaí were in the vicinity of the Phoenix Park on Saturday night? If not, why?

I express my condolences to the bereaved families and those who were injured last weekend. I will focus on future security. Would airport-type security be appropriate for such events? Many events are held in Ireland, but not all of them have large attendances. Some are only attended by thousands. Often, we attend local football matches. Where violence can be expected, airport-type security measures might be appropriate. Has the Minister an opinion in this regard, particularly given the events of last weekend and their implication for further concerts this summer in Marley Park and the Phoenix Park that will attract similarly large crowds?

Déanaim comhbhrón le clanna na ndaoine a fuair bás, agus leo siúd atá fós gortaithe, ónar tharla ag an deireadh seachtaine. What can be done to deal with concert goers who are patently unable to enjoy themselves at a concert and can no more walk than they can crawl? I saw such scenes. Some measure must be implemented so that such people can be turned away or placed in a drink tank or recovery unit. What can be done to ensure an increased Garda presence or stewarding in the vicinity of concerts? Many years ago when I attended the Trip to Tipp, Slane or the likes, one of the conditions was that concert organisers would pay for stewards in the local towns or residential areas. However, this does not seem to have been the case in Chapelizod. An increased presence in surrounding areas is necessary if similar concerts are to proceed in future.

I thank the Minister for his frank reply. As to attributing blame, the promoters have made efforts to distract attention from their responsibilities and divert it towards the Office of Public Works, the Garda and Dublin City Council. I do not accept that, as those groups' responsibility in this matter is minimal.

The Minister has reservations in terms of what he can say, given the legal position, but I concur with his comments on those who injure people etc. in that the law should take its normal course. The law applies equally to those who made money from the concert and those who committed offences there. The promoters have questions to answer, as they were responsible for the concert and its security. Had there been proper security, we would not be having this discussion. MCD should not be granted further licences, given the loss of life at this event.

I thank Deputies for their comments, some of which were constructive. I want to emphasise that this is a matter of very substantial concern to me. I want to give Deputies some insight into the security arrangements. I am told that the promoters had 511 security personnel present on the occasion of the concert on Saturday evening. That number actually exceeded the number that their licence required them to provide that night. Quite clearly, based on the nature of the concert that took place, it appears as if that was inadequate, but I want to be careful not to pre-judge what is going to come from the Garda Commissioner.

The Garda Síochána had 158 members engaged in providing policing services that night. This compares with the 122 gardaí required on the night of the event that preceded the Saturday night concert. There was another concert on Sunday evening at which there were 122 members of An Garda Síochána.

I have a variety of concerns. Essentially, this concert could, because of the profile of the young people who attended it, in other circumstances have been described as a rave. It was that type of an event. It was a different event than the event that took place on the Thursday or the Sunday evening. I am concerned that the licensing authority did not have adequate regard to the age of those who were attending the concert and the heightened possibility of difficulty that arose from those who were both playing in the concert and those who followed the individuals who were playing the concert. I am not saying that as a criticism of the musicians themselves. I am very conscious that there is an age divide between many of us in this House and those who attended the concert. Perhaps not quite in respect of Deputy Nulty, but perhaps in the context of the rest of us. That was a concern.

As to the issue of whether we can give an assurance to the local community to the effect that this will not happen again, the Garda Commissioner is conducting his review and I am expecting some recommendations to emerge out of it that should provide for, for example, additional conditions to be imposed on promoters of concerts in the Phoenix Park. I do not want to rule out concerts in the Phoenix Park. There was not this level of difficulty with the Sunday and Thursday evening concerts and it would be unfair to rule concerts out in their entirety. I take the view that promoters have a responsibility to ensure that those who attend concerts can do so safely, that there is no sense of menace and that individuals who clearly should not be admitted are not admitted. I am not convinced enough was done to ensure that those who were seriously inebriated prior to the concert or those who were clearly and visibly under the influence of drugs were excluded from the concert. It should be made clear in future that individuals in that condition will be excluded.

I am concerned that the security arrangements at the concert may have been more focused on ensuring individuals did not bring drink into the concert, thereby reducing the commercial benefit to the promoters of the drinks sold at the concert, than the protection of people present at the concert.

That is correct.

That is a specific issue that must be seriously addressed.

Deputy Keating raised the issue of airport-type security. The difficulty, I have been told, with this concert is that there was a large number of young people sitting around drinking in the Phoenix Park immediately before the concert, with the gates only opened a half hour before the performance so that 40,000 to 45,000 people could enter. The gates should have been opened much earlier and the approach taken to alcohol - an issue relevant not just to the concert promoters - resulted in many young people drinking cans of alcohol at a rapid rate before gaining entry. That was because they feared that the alcohol would be confiscated.

The promoters should apologise for the level of disorder at the concert to the vast majority of people who were law-abiding and attended the event in the hope of having an enjoyable occasion. It is worth mentioning that although, unfortunately, we have seen a series of recent incidents where trouble and violence was fuelled by young people drinking to excess and taking illegal drugs, the problem is not a matter of law and order, and it is not confined to this event. The issue requires action by parents, educators and those who sell alcohol, not only in public houses but across the retail sector.

For my part, in the coming months I will be putting in place regulations aimed at addressing the problem of excessive drinking. The Deputies have helpfully outlined a number of the concerns arising from Saturday night's events and I will take whatever action is open to me and required when I receive the Garda Commissioner's report.

Family Law Cases

As the Minister knows, no justice system is perfect and delays in family court hearings, with the consequent negative impact on women and children in particular, is an Irish scandal. I have been approached by a number of constituents, leading family solicitors and women's organisations, all claiming there is a serious backlog in maintenance applications.

The picture being painted by the people in contact with me is of a system in complete disarray, with many women and children living in poverty and on the edge. Several women have stated that they feel they are being gagged by the family law courts. They are frustrated that they are not allowed to speak out. I appreciate that family law cases are held in camera and I respect the rule but it can be manipulated against the applicant, and often legal people can get away with very unprofessional behaviour while still charging top dollar.

I would appreciate if the Minister could reply to the following questions. Is it correct that women and children are being left to wait for up to one year for hearing dates for emergency maintenance applications in the family law courts? These women often do not know where they will get money to pay for basics like food, clothing and doctor bills. How many judges short is the District and Circuit Court system, and is it true that criminal cases take precedence over family law cases? Are judges of the Circuit Court, in Dublin particularly, being regularly seconded from urgent family law hearings to sit in the criminal courts?

Is it correct that a judge was recently taken from the family law Circuit Court hearings at Phoenix House in Dublin to hear the high-profile prosecution case of a former personal assistant to a millionaire? That was done at the expense of hundreds of maintenance and other family law-type hearings. Is it true that even when dates are given for family law case hearings, particularly maintenance applications on behalf of women and children, these cases are repeatedly adjourned? Why is that? Why are cases being listed for hearing and expensive legal teams being brought to court when it is clear those cases will not be heard? Women seeking maintenance often emerge from family law court hearings that have been adjourned with a hefty legal bill and no maintenance payments.

What is the timeframe for the hearing of maintenance cases at Phoenix House family law Circuit Court in Dublin? Will some form of emergency interim system be put in place to address the thousands of unheard maintenance applications, where women and children are being left on the poverty line while the husbands are allowed to do whatever they want with their salaries until the cases reach the court? What is the extent of the backlogs in family law hearings in each of the courts?

Will adequate consultation facilities be provided in family law courts in recognition of the sensitive nature of these issues? Currently, consultation often takes place in corridors and in corners, which is unacceptable. The many women and some men who have contacted me have spoken about the stress and animosity that Irish family law cases can cause between family members, not to mention the significant financial burden that arises. As the natural primary and fundamental units in Irish society, families - including women, children and men - deserve better.

The Deputy has raised an issue that has been a concern of mine for many years. The difficult reality is that we have within our courts system no separate court to deal with family law matters, unlike the separate unified system of family courts in Australia. Within the District and Circuit Court there are separate court sittings dealing with family law issues, and the High Court sits separately to deal with family law applications.

In the context of the issue raised by the Deputy, I am not aware of there being "thousands of maintenance cases", so described, in which women are awaiting emergency maintenance orders sitting in a court backlog. I am not aware either that if there is a need for emergency maintenance, it would take a year for a determination to be made. If the Deputy has particular cases where that has occurred, I ask her to draw them to my attention or table a question on the timeframe.

I am aware that in the District Court it may take a number of weeks if not some months for maintenance cases to be determined. Where there is a need for emergency maintenance within the courts, there are procedures for the making of an application for what is known as interim maintenance and for interim maintenance orders to be granted. That applies across the courts system.

I share the Deputy's concern with regard to what is known as the in camera rule, which was put in place many years ago to ensure that those who experience family difficulties may have their family law proceedings determined in circumstances of anonymity and that they are not in any way intimidated out of taking matters to court because the family story might appear in the newspapers to the embarrassment of the people in question or the detriment of their children’s welfare. The in camera rule means there is little public knowledge of the manner in which family cases are determined within the courts system, and there is no transparency in the manner in which members of the Judiciary deal with family matters. The Circuit Court particularly deals with a substantial majority of the separation and divorce cases, and the District Court deals with an overwhelming majority of the maintenance and barring order cases. There is no repository of judgments delivered by members of the Judiciary detailing the approach taken by them in applying the very detailed legal principles of relevance. It is my intention to introduce legislation to provide for reform in this area so we have greater transparency in family court proceedings with the possibility of reporting while still protecting the anonymity of the individuals engaged in such proceedings.

The Deputy is aware that as part of the programme for Government we provide for a unified system of family courts the nature of which we do not have in the State at present. The establishment of such courts is crucial if we are to ensure family law is addressed in a manner that is appropriate in the 21st century and provides the courts with the standard backup services dealing with child welfare issues such as are available in other jurisdictions and which perhaps replicate what is available in the family court system in Australia. I am happy to tell the Deputy initial work has been completed in this area and I expect to make an announcement shortly having made certain proposals to Cabinet. If we are to establish such a unified family court system it will require a constitutional referendum and it is anticipated this referendum will take place some time during 2013 when the more detailed work required in the area has been completed.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. I will table parliamentary questions on the delays on maintenance. I thank him for introducing legislation on family courts, particularly with regard to the in camera rule.

The criminal justice system has the potential to make criminals out of victims. In particular I ask the Minister to examine the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill which will make it an offence to withhold information. Often in circumstances of domestic violence the mother lacks the capacity or courage to report the abuse of her child. This rule should not be applied too rigidly in domestic violence situations. I accept it is the job of parents to protect their children but for some women this is not possible. A woman who has been the victim of domestic violence often cannot protect herself or her child. To apply this rule too rigidly would make criminals out of mothers. I am also concerned that abused women will stop seeking advice from support groups such as Women's Aid or their friends and family. People will keep their situations secret to avoid reporting.

In the past the Probation and Welfare Service worked with the District Court family law courts. The relationship between the probation services and the courts ceased and no other agency was put in place to deal with these issues. As a result judges are often placed in an impossible situation. They need to determine the issue of access without the views of the child being heard. To make matters worse, if an order for access is not being obeyed it is the mother's fault. The mother is summoned before the court and may be committed to prison for breaching the order, again making a criminal of the victim.

The Deputy has now raised two entirely different issues to the issue with which she opened and I hope to have the time to respond to them for fear misinformation outside the House may cause concern.

The Minister has only two minutes.

The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill is under consideration by the House with Report and Final Stages to be considered tomorrow. The primary purpose of the Bill is to ensure there is an obligation on persons who have knowledge of all serious offences, including sexual offences against children or vulnerable adults, to inform the Garda. In drafting the Bill I also have to be very mindful of the fact that the balance of evidence suggests the majority of abuse of children or vulnerable adults takes place in the person's own home. The Bill applies to all persons, to all organisations and to all sectors of society. It is very important that we produce legislation that affords protection from abuse to children or vulnerable persons, in any scenario or in any location. This is what the Bill is about. It also must be borne in mind that existing provisions in the criminal law for the protection of children continue to apply. This includes section 176 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 which makes it an offence for a person with authority or control over a child, such as a parent, to intentionally or recklessly endanger a child by causing or permitting a child to be placed or left in a situation which creates a substantial risk to the child of being a victim of serious harm or sexual abuse. I therefore do not believe that the Bill significantly alters the responsibilities of a parent under the law. However, the Bill also establishes some limited defences for persons such as a parent or guardian or medical professional who, acting in the interests of the health and well-being of the child or vulnerable person, fails to make a report to the Garda. The Bill also includes a defence of reasonable excuse. This provision would cater for the type of situation referred to by Deputy Mitchell O'Connor where a parent may also be a victim of violence and may be too frightened and intimidated by a violent partner to go to the Garda. The Members of this House are aware the Bill is an important provision in the suite of legislation we are bringing into force to protect children.

The Probation Service, known as the Probation and Welfare Service many years ago, provided child welfare reports to the District Court to assist District Court judges make decisions on issues relating to custody and access. Unfortunately, many years ago the then Government ended this function of the Probation Service. There is a gap in the District Court and Circuit Court systems in that I believe the courts require the assistance which can be provided by child assessments in making determinations in this area. It is an issue that will be addressed in the context of the legislation to establish family courts. It will be a difficult issue to address in the context of the limited resources currently available. However, I am determined to address the issue and ensure the gap which exists in this area is adequately filled during the lifetime of the Government.

Ballylongford Landbank

I thank the Minister for attending the House. With regard to the report published by the Commission for Energy Regulation on 29 June 2012, I wish specifically to highlight how it impacts on my constituency and on the Ballylongford landbank which, unbeknown to many people in the House and country, is the second deepest water port in the entirety of Europe. Unfortunately, it has been the subject of many false dawns to date. In the 1970s Aran Energy considered building an oil refinery on this piece of land. With some foresight, the State has taken a landbank of approximately 600 acres which if it existed in any other part of Europe would be the site of great industry and employment. With respect, I must state I am disappointed not so much with the findings but with how the matter has played out since 2001. In 2001 the then Minister with responsibility for enterprise decided we needed a new interconnector between Ireland and the UK with the capacity to transport 22 million cu. m of gas per day. This was built and in 2002 the regulator took control of the market.

The Department of the Taoiseach commissioned a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2009. Our regulator is independent and a public agency. A table reveals a considerable variety in the legal status of European regulators and the independence of energy regulators. In Ireland and Portugal they are independent public agencies. To this end complete responsibility lies with the independent regulator who faces consequences for making judgments deemed to be inappropriate. Will the Minister highlight how he can ask the Judiciary to rule on this if needs be and how we can act within the EU Commissioner's regulations?

In 2005 the regulator decided a tariff regime was needed for external sources, because at the time 95% of our gas was coming from the State-owned interconnectors and the ring main, with 5% coming from Kinsale. The Corrib gas field was coming on stream and at the time the regulator was under no illusion about having to put a tariff in place. In 2006, Hess Engineering, along with Shannon LNG, looked at developing the Ballylongford site for the purpose of a gas LNG plant which would bring an investment of between €600 million and €1 billion to our country. This would bring foreign moneys, create jobs and provide a positive start to energy provision which would ultimately realise more jobs in Kerry Group and the Tarbert fuel station which would now become a gas generating station. This would be positive for the country and for north Kerry. It is now 2012 and the issues are still not resolved. Eleven years have passed since the first proposals were made and the timeframe now proposed for a resolution by the regulator is October 2014. This is unacceptable. It is not the kind of conduct one would expect in a commercial and viable country.

I am not happy with the conduct of the regulator. I understand the issue is highly complex but many people do not understand that. It is time the issue was brought to a conclusion. I have made recommendations to Bord Gáis Networks, to Shannon LNG and to members of the committee dealing with transport, communications and energy on the need for a special Oireachtas committee meeting to discuss whether a judicial review is warranted as a result of the tariffs being proposed. The Brattle Group, which is commissioned by governments and independent gas companies throughout the world, has referred to the situation here. It stated that in terms of process and managing legitimate expectation, the CER does not seem to have followed best practice. The CER presented four options in a July 2011 consultation paper and has rejected all of those subsequently.

I thank Deputy Spring for raising this issue, in which he has shown a keen interest for some time. I welcome the opportunity to update him and Members of the House on this important issue. The matter raised relates to the decision published by the Commission for Energy Regulation on 29 June last, relating to the regulatory treatment of the BGE interconnectors and the future gas transmission tariff regime. I trust that this high level decision provides a degree of regulatory certainty that has been sought by all stakeholders, including Shannon LNG.

I have consistently welcomed the proposal by Shannon LNG to construct a LNG terminal near Ballylongford, County Kerry. Such a facility, together with the bringing onshore of Corrib gas would provide important security of gas supply for Ireland. I met the promoters of the project soon after taking office and both my Department and the Commission for Energy Regulation are in regular contact with Shannon LNG. Together with all players and potential players in Ireland's gas market, Shannon LNG has a key commercial interest in the outcome of the CER's decision on this complex regulatory question and, given the complexities, there are many differing perspectives on what the decision should be.

The decision on the regulatory treatment of the gas interconnectors is by law a matter for the Commission for Energy Regulation under the Gas (Interim) (Regulation) Act 2002. The regulator, as the independent energy regulator, has a remit to protect energy consumers, ensure security of supply and support competitiveness. It also has a duty to ensure that new sources of gas for the Irish market do not result in unwarranted increases in the price of gas to business and domestic consumers. Over the past number of months, the CER has been engaged in an extensive consultation process on the matter and has had considerable interaction with Shannon LNG as well as with all key stakeholders. The publication by the CER, on 17 February last, of a proposed decision paper for consultation was followed by the assessment of stakeholder submissions by the CER and meetings with several individual stakeholders, including Shannon LNG.

The CER's high level decision, published on 29 June, concludes that the current gas transmission entry tariff regime must be reformed in the light of new sources of gas, such as Corrib and Shannon LNG, coming on stream. The interconnector entry tariff plays a crucial role in determining Irish gas wholesale prices for all customers. Without reform of the system, the reduced flows of gas through the interconnectors due to new sources of gas coming on stream could lead to significant increases in the per unit interconnector tariff. In turn, this would push up prices for gas consumers in Ireland. The decision commits the CER to the setting of tariffs at each entry point. Tariffs will be set separately on the basis of forward looking long run marginal cost, LRMC, considerations. The new tariff regime is expected to come into effect in October 2014.

The CER has decided that a network tariffs liaison group, involving stakeholders, will be established. The purpose of the group will be to inform the regulator's future decisions on the methodology for setting the LRMC tariffs for each entry point. Following a decision by the regulator on the methodology to apply, the CER will then issue a direction to Gaslink to effect these reforms. I very much hope that all stakeholders, including Shannon LNG, will continue to work with the CER on this issue.

This matter must be resolved. To put it in context, under the strategic infrastructural planning rules in this country, in 2006 Shannon LNG achieved planning permission within six months. However, it took the regulator 18 months to analyse that decision and now it seems that it will be 2014 before any project gets off the ground. There is no certainty surrounding this and for anybody considering making a substantial investment of between €600 million and €1 billion the figures must be provided with regard to the proposed tariff. Any business plan must be able to be promoted so that a decision can be made on whether it will go ahead. The liaison group should be set up immediately and should be required to resolve the matter within the next six months. Then Hess and LNG can commit or not to tendering for the project.

A report of The Economist intelligence unit produced for the Department of the Taoiseach in 2009 stated that evidence that energy prices in Ireland are high by international standards raises potential questions about the effectiveness of the regulatory regime in the absence of some alternative explanation for such high prices and that the regulator’s job is not to set artificially low prices but to ensure that the customers are not paying for more or less than they would in competitive markets. It is high time we took a look at how our system works and separated how Bord Gáis networks work and how private investors can consider creating jobs and reducing the price of energy, ultimately creating competitiveness for the consumer and for the national well-being. Some 65% of the electricity that is created in this country is from gas. I welcome better sources, but the process is too slow. Action by the regulator since 2002 is unacceptable and the regulatory system needs to be improved to that end.

As a matter of coincidence, the International Energy Agency published its review today of the effectiveness, efficiency and competitiveness of the Irish energy sector. The executive director from Paris was here to launch that document and the conclusions of the review find the work of the Irish regulator praiseworthy.

I accept the point made by Deputy Spring and inform him that within days the letters will issue to ensure that the network tariffs liaison group will be set up to commence the process. It is a matter for others as to how quickly they will respond to that. I am, to some extent, in the dark in that since the regulator made its decision on 29 June, I have not had any response from the company. Neither has the regulator had a response, to my knowledge. I hope that is a good sign and I also hope the company is engaging with the decision. I am disappointed to hear Deputy Spring say that he thinks the decision will not bring the necessary regulatory certainty. Getting the decision had been delayed by actions of the company, in terms of making complaints to Europe. Nonetheless, the regulator published its decision on 29 June, with the purpose of giving regulatory certainty. I take some hope from the fact that the company has not made any reaction to me or the regulator that it will engage in private with the regulator in terms of assessing what precisely are the implications of what is, as Deputy Spring said, a highly complex area.

Road Improvement Schemes

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting what is an extremely important topical issue in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath. In fact, I can conservatively say that 50-plus jobs are on the line today as a result of the new N4 Downes interchange and the ongoing works. The works, which were initiated in 2008, are not the problem and I welcome the investment by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport of in excess of €14 million in this project. It was an extremely dangerous junction which, unfortunately, saw many fatalities. What is happening now is the issue.

Despite previous assurances from the local authority and the contractors that the medians on this stretch of road would remain open until the flyover was erected, unfortunately, they have not be adhered to. I will give the Minister the history of the issue. Originally, a Part 8 process was embarked upon and the council officials engaged with the vested interests, including businesses and landowners, and advised them that they would maintain the medians on the road in order to provide access to businesses and for local residents during the construction phase.

Extra money became available through the National Roads Authority but, unfortunately, there was a need to re-advertise and go through the Part 8 process again. At no stage was the fact that the medians would close mentioned. A number of business have met the local authority officials and the project office and they have been advised that a number of medians will close on 16 July and the remaining ones will close on 22 August, but the bridge has not been opened. The bridge will be under construction until December of this year. It was understood there was a provision in the agreement with the contractors that reasonable access would be provided to businesses while the works were being carried out but this appears to have been completely ignored.

It is unfortunate the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport cannot be here because he turned the sod on this project and I am sure he is quite familiar with it. I will take the Thomas Flynn and Sons site as an example. Under the current regime, to close the median gaps westbound, N4 traffic with a destination at Flynn's would be required to divert more than 10 km via the N52 interchange to the east of Mullingar. Eastbound, N4 traffic would similarly be required to divert approximately 5 km via the interchange junction near Coralstown. It is a serious inconvenience to people using this route. These people have engaged Traffic Wise Consultants and they have come up with a comprehensive suggestion and a compromise for the council. I understand the council would be willing to engage and take it on board were it not for the NRA which has put in a condition that the contract and the money must be drawn down by the end of December this year.

Will the Minister ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to instruct NRA officials to engage positively with council officials to ensure what needs to be done at a relatively low cost to maintain the 50-plus jobs at these business is done? We suffered 45 job losses in the town of Mullingar yesterday and we do not want to see 50 jobs lost for want of positive engagement with an arm of this State.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important local issue. I am standing in for my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, and I will undertake to bring the Deputy's views directly to his attention.

While the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has responsibility for overall policy and funding in regard to the national roads programme, the construction, improvement and maintenance of individual national roads is a statutory function of the National Roads Authority under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Section 17 of the principal Act indicates that it shall be the general duty of the authority to secure the provision of a safe and efficient network of national roads. This section of road is on a major through route for traffic between Dublin and the west, a route that serves most of the north west from parts of Donegal down into Roscommon, Mayo, Leitrim and Roscommon. Most importantly, this section comes at the end of motorway and dual carriageway standard roads all the way from Dublin's M50. Motorists travelling this route are suddenly faced with traffic crossing ahead of them in right turning manoeuvres. This scenario is repeated at several locations in quick succession. Such turning manoeuvres are recognised to be among the most hazardous and more likely to lead to death or serious injury in any resultant collision. The NRA recognised the dangers in these particular circumstances and has chosen, even in the face of a severely constrained budget, to devote funding to this project. It is one of only the few national roads projects under way.

I understand the scheme involves the construction of a new grade separated junction, a footbridge for pedestrians across the dual carriageway, the elimination of the median crossings and the construction of hard shoulders. These measures, in particular the closure of the median crossing, are designed to improve the safety of road users along this section of the N4. The scheme is being implemented by Westmeath County Council, which designed the scheme over an extended period. This included meetings with the public, affected landowners and local business people. Various alternative design options were examined and public consultation meetings were held by the council on its proposals in October 2007 and February 2008. One local business made a request for a left in only access to its premises which front onto this road. This was considered by Westmeath County Council and its consultants at the design stage. However, this option was ruled out for reasons of traffic safety, particularly in regard to the proximity of the westbound on-ramp for the new grade separated junction.

When completed, these improvement works will provide access to the particular premises via the new grade separated junction and new access roads that will be constructed as part of the scheme to provide access to businesses and properties whose existing entrances will be affected. The new junction layout complies with NRA national road design standards and is typical of junctions used on motorways and dual carriageways throughout the network. The junction design offers high standards of safety for traffic entering and leaving motorways and dual carriageways.

I understand from the NRA that the additional travel distance to the business premises for traffic conning from Dublin is minimal, with east bound traffic only slightly more inconvenienced. However, I must note that any inconvenience caused to either the staff or potential customers by the new access arrangements is more than offset by the very significant road safety benefits deriving from the removal of the at-grade junctions and the provision of full grade separated access arrangements which will provide far safer access for all concerned.

I appreciate that there can be disruption to individuals and businesses during the construction phase of a project such as this. However, the issue of the sequencing of individual elements of the construction process and how they are carried through is a matter for the NRA, the local authority and the contractor concerned. Notwithstanding this, the Department has made the NRA aware of the concerns raised by the Deputy. In this context, I would expect that Westmeath County Council will try to keep inconvenience to a minimum while appreciating that the council and the contractor have to take account of health and safety considerations for motorists and construction workers on what is a very busy active roadway.

Westmeath County Council is trying, within reason, to minimise the inconvenience caused to the businesses and local people who use this stretch of road and are affected by this.

The NRA is the funding master, to whom Westmeath County Council will go for the cheque at the end of the year. It has dictated that this section of road must be completed by the end of December 2012. The contractor is saying that cannot be done without closing the medians, one in July and one in August. This will result in a four month period when a severe diversion, 10 km in one direction and 5 km in the other, will be required. The local business people have engaged traffic consultants and have made a proposal, identical to that originally suggested by the local authority and by SIAC, the contractor, that the medians remain open until the bridge is completed.

We ask that the NRA allow the additional time needed, which might be a month or two, running up to February 2013, to allow the work to be completed, to keep the medians open and support the 50 jobs that are on the line at present.

The Government has, rightly, prioritised job creation. Fifty jobs are on the line here. The Minister for Transport turned the sod on this project. He must not turn the key on four businesses and see 50 job losses, simply because the NRA is unaccommodating. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister to have his officials consult with Westmeath County Council to bring about a satisfactory conclusion and support the 50 jobs that are on the line.

I will certainly talk to Minister for Transport. I know the stretch of road well. I travelled it twice in the last four days. Some of the median to which the Deputy refers is already built.

Three are closed and the remainder will soon close.

I have some sympathy with the point the Deputy makes about inconvenience. However, the professional and technical advice is that it is necessary to proceed in the way outlined.

I am sure the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, would be happy to talk to the county manager or county engineer about bridging the four month period and minimising the inconvenience and to discuss the concerns raised by the Deputy.

It would help if the payment could be allowed to run into the first two months of next year.

I understand that.