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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 28 Nov 2012

Vol. 784 No. 3

Topical Issue Debate

Horse Racing Industry Development

Ireland is recognised as a world leader in the horse racing and horse breeding industry. The industry employs in excess of 17,000 people around the country, particularly in rural areas where other employment prospects are scarce. I know this because approximately 4,000 people are employed in the industry in my own county of Kildare.

The bloodstock industry is worth over €1 billion to the Irish economy. It has the potential to maintain and create more jobs if the proper structures and funding are in place to allow it to develop and grow. Ireland is the fourth largest producer of thoroughbreds in the world, producing 40% of the EU output, and 11% of the world total. Irish horses are exported to more than 35 countries around the world with a total value of over €150 million last year.

The industry has for many years been an important source of high value foreign direct investment as many high net-worth individuals are attracted here by our top class young horses. Our position as world leader should not be taken for granted and it will not be maintained without ongoing development and investment. We are open to challenge as a world leader. Many of our competitors are investing in their industries and providing facilities, prize money and infrastructure in order to attract the top horse breeders and owners to their shores. If we cannot match them and continue to breed top class race horses in this country we will lose our leading industry position with a resultant loss for the economy in terms of jobs and economic activity.

The investment by the French authorities in their bloodstock industry over the recent years in particular, illustrates the need never to take for granted our position as a world leader in the industry. The improved French prize money system and breeder initiatives have attracted an increased number of foreign owners to France.

There has been an increase in the number of top stallions in England and some of our top stallions have gone to France. Elusive City is an example of one stallion who has been lost from the Irish National Stud to stand in France.

A large number of mares come to Ireland each year to be covered by our top stallions. It is the practice to house these mares in small yards all over the country. This brings significant income to many local economies. If we do not retain our top stallions, we will lose those mares and that income.

To retain its standing at the top of the table, the Irish bloodstock industry needs a secure guaranteed funding stream allowing it to plan for its future and to make investment where required. Ours is one of the few horse racing industries in the world that does not have its own guaranteed funding model. Currently, the industry relies on an annual allocation from the Government through the horse and greyhound fund. The lack of a dedicated secure funding stream is a precarious position, particularly when budgets are tight. This is a problem for both the industry and the Exchequer and a solution needs to be found to help both. Exchequer funding from betting tax has fallen.

The recently produced Indecon report showed that in 1991 the Exchequer collected €38.5 million in betting duty. By 2001, this had increased to €68 million, but in 2011 only €27 million was collected. This creates a funding shortfall for the industry which has to be met from already-scarce Government funds. This is not sustainable in our current budgetary environment.

The industry does not want, and never wanted, to be reliant on an annual handout from the Government. In light of national financial circumstances and facing into further austerity budgets, the long-term goal of the bloodstock industry is to return to circumstances in which it can survive without the direct support of the Exchequer.

While moves to broaden the tax base on betting are essential, improvements in commercial activity by the racing and breeding industries are also required. I welcome the establishment of the joint HRI-Turf Club implementation task force and its goal of achieving significant efficiencies, as outlined in the Indecon report.

Although Ireland is one of the world leaders in horse racing and breeding, I raise this topic because, if we are not careful and do not have an adequately funded, properly structured multi-annual budget, at a time when we are being targeted by other leading countries, we could be passed out in the final furlong.

I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is crucial that this matter be raised at this time because, as Deputy Heydon stated, the Government has a role in providing annual funding. The objective is to secure the 16,000 jobs involved in the racing industry. It would be nice to be able to say we will allocate so much for the next five years but that is not how it will happen. We will just have to fight for funding on a year-by-year basis.

The Deputy referred to the betting tax revenue of eight or nine years ago. There is much more betting in the State today, yet we are receiving half the tax revenue. We are trying to remedy that. I hope that by the end of next year, the results of our efforts will be evident.

The bloodstock industry is significant to this country. It is estimated to underpin 17,350 jobs and almost €1 billion in economic output. Exports, to 35 countries, were worth some €157 million in 2011.

Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, a commercial State body, was established under the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001, which dissolved the Irish Horseracing Authority and extended the Irish Horseracing Industry Act 1994. HRI is charged with the overall administration, promotion and development of the industry with a funding mechanism established under statute.

The horse and greyhound racing fund was established under section 12(1) of the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001 for the purpose of giving support to the horse and greyhound racing industries. In the period 2001 to 2012, a total of €786.75 million has been paid from the fund to the horse and greyhound racing industries in accordance with the provisions of the Act. Moneys are paid out of the fund in the ratio of 80% to HRI and 20% to Bord na gCon, as specified in section 12(6) of the Act. The total paid from the fund to HRI in the period 2001 to 2012 amounts to €629.4 million. State funding provided through the fund is pivotal to the development of the horse and greyhound racing industries.

The initial funding model for the horse and greyhound racing fund provided that the fund would each year be financed by an amount equal to the revenue from excise duty on off-course betting in the preceding year or the year 2000, increased by reference to the consumer price index, whichever was greater. This formula applied for the years 2001 to 2008 and was abandoned in 2009. The approach employed since 2009 has been for the Minister with responsibility for horse racing legislation to decide on the amount to be provided to the horse and greyhound racing fund, subject to the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas.

At the outset, in 2001, the fund was financed entirely in line with the proceeds of betting duty, amounting to €58.9 million. However, because of the decrease in the duty collected on betting and the migration of betting to online tax-free platforms, an increasing amount of Exchequer support was required. The Exchequer contribution reached a peak of €39.9 million in 2008 and decreased to €29.3 million in 2012.

Given the importance of the horse racing industry and the challenges it currently faces, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, commissioned Indecon, following a public tender earlier this year, to conduct an independent review of certain aspects of the horse racing industry. Topics covered included, inter alia, legislation, governance structures, funding and management of the industry and the scope for streamlining the functions assigned under legislation to Horse Racing Ireland and to the Turf Club.

In its report, Indecon highlighted the importance and potential of the horse racing industry and affirmed that, with appropriate policies and structures in place, the sector can contribute significantly to the economic and social development of the country and the expansion of employment.

The Minister for Finance has published the Betting (Amendment) Bill, which, when enacted and implemented, will increase the yield to the Exchequer from betting duty. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, made clear his intention to address the other recommendations contained in the Indecon report. In this context, he intends to bring forward in the new year the necessary legislative provisions for the changes in the board and statutory committees of HRI. He also requested HRI and the Turf Club to establish a streamlining task force with a view to achieving the savings in administration as identified by Indecon. He is aware that this group has since been established and considers completion of this exercise an important prerequisite to future funding decisions.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Deputies will be aware that, despite the current very serious budgetary circumstances and in recognition of the importance and potential of the horse racing industry, the allocation to the horse and greyhound fund was not subject to any significant reduction last year. The allocation for next year will be decided in the context of budgetary decisions. While the need for a secure funding model for the sector is recognised, the current budgetary situation places considerable constraints on commitments which can be made at this time. In this context, it is also important that the sector seek to explore maximising commercial funding possibilities, as recommended by Indecon. For the Government's part it will continue to pay particular attention to the development of the sector and the range of measures in train will ensure it can remain a flagship industry for our country.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Having worked for four years in the racing industry and having grown up beside a two-stallion stud farm, I understand the value of the industry to small rural economies. I also understand the value and importance of the funding currently made available through the horse and greyhound racing fund. At times, we almost regard it as a cliché that Ireland is a world leader in the racing industry. Racing is an industry although many regard it as a sport. If one considers the figures and the number employed throughout the country, one realises the industry is doing extremely well to hold on despite the cuts. I accept the Minister did very well last year in not cutting funding for the industry too much but the cuts since 2007 and 2008 have been significant and have had an impact. That the industry is trying to hold on is a testament to the extent of the cuts.

The recession provides us with an opportunity to fix many of the problems in the country but, when one thinks of solutions, one concludes it is not a question of reinventing the wheel or finding something new and golden but of investing in our indigenous industries and what we are good at. The horse racing industry is an example. We have the expertise, climate, correct soil type and natural raw material in the horses. It is important to have the foresight not to keep cutting funding at a time when it is needed more than ever.

The Curragh racecourse really needs to be upgraded. It is where we showcase our top horses. Its facilities do not reflect the standard of the horses or the standard that the industry stars portray for us around the world, thereby doing our reputation no service. We need to have the foresight to make the required investment.

In 1982, a tax of 20% was levied on bets. This was reduced to 10% by the then Minister for Finance, Mr. Alan Dukes. Subsequent reductions saw the tax fall to 2% and then 1%. In this same timeframe, most other Irish taxes increased. This needs to be borne in mind.

I understand where the Deputy is coming from. What he proposes is crucial because everybody knows there is an attack on the industry, particularly from France and other countries that want to take not only our horses but also our pride in the industry. While I cannot say what the budget will be, we are committed to continuing to fund the industry. When the recommendations in the report have been implemented by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, funding will be made available from sources that should never have been taken away from the industry. I speak for myself in saying the reduction of the betting tax to 1% was crazy. Although I was 16 or 17 at the time, and was not supposed to be betting, I remember that one always paid 5 p in the pound and never minded as long as one won. What was done was stupid, irrespective of the Government in power and even if our own people were involved. It was an awful mistake and we must return to the tax regime that existed theretofore.

United Nations Resolutions

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this important and timely issue. Like many others in Ireland and across the globe, I was shocked and deeply saddened by the devastating impact of the outbreak of violence in Gaza in recent weeks. More than 150 Palestinians, including many women and children, and five Israelis were killed over eight days in another bloody chapter in the sad history of the region. The loss of life can be added to the litany of tragedies the people of Gaza have endured. Only four years ago the world witnessed Operation Cast Lead when 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including 313 children, and thousands were wounded. The fragile peace between Israel and the Gaza Strip was shattered by the aggressive actions of both sides. No progress has been made since the end of the conflict in 2009. Unfortunately, there has only been simmering violence waiting to boil over as it, inevitably, did earlier this month.

The current ceasefire offers breathing space, but the deeply ingrained problems of the region remain unsolved and in the coming months and years we may once again be visited with images of families destroyed in the Gaza Strip and the people of southern Israel fleeing for bomb shelters if we do not resurrect the promise of the Oslo peace accords. The international community must refocus its efforts on achieving a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders. However, this goal is becoming ever more distant, with illegal Israeli settlements rendering it unfeasible and the deepening chasm between the West Bank under Fatah and Gaza under the terrorist organisation, Hamas. Time is not on the side of peace.

Tomorrow presents an opportunity to take a step in the right direction. The United Nations General Assembly will hold a vote on upgrading Palestine to non-member observer state status. I call on the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Government to confirm both Ireland's support for the motion and their efforts to persuade as many of our EU colleagues as possible to back the initiative. The issue was discussed earlier this month at the European Council meeting and no consensus on was reached by the 27 member states. However, the support of Britain and France for the measure should help to add impetus to the European Union's consistent support for Palestinian statehood. It is vital that the Tánaiste and the Government continue to press the case for Palestinian statehood. While Israel and the United States have stated their opposition to the move, possibly in the light of the potential for Palestine to access the International Criminal Court, it is difficult to see how access to justice should be cited as a reason to stymie this potential important step forward. Furthermore, endorsement by the 192 member states hardly constitutes unilateralism by Palestine, as critics of the move have argued.

A failure of the international community to endorse the diplomatic route towards Palestinian statehood will simply entrench the militant hold on the region. Politics needs to be seen to work for the embattled people of Gaza and the West Bank. The peace process needs a spark to light it up again and tomorrow's vote can provide that fresh push. I trust that the Tánaiste appreciates the volatility of the current situation, the changed geopolitical context of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the importance of the European Union taking a leading role on the issue. This recognition must be the beginning of a restart of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine with the aim of securing a comprehensive settlement to the mutual benefit of both parties. It is only through an enduring settlement that the events of this month will be condemned to the past. The Minister of State will agree that a positive outcome to the vote tomorrow by the international community will be a chink of light in what has been a dark month for that historically troubled land.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue which I am taking on behalf of the Tánaiste. It is good that it is being raised. Both the Deputy and I are of a similar age and we can recall all the horrors of the past on this island. Last week, when we witnessed similar atrocities in Gaza, it brought me back in time and one cannot say who is right or wrong. We faced our own horrors in Northern Ireland and, whether it involved the British Army, the UVF or the IRA, somebody always suffered, no matter who committed them. One should not take sides, but there is no question that the Palestinian people need support which I hope is clear from the Tánaiste's reply. If not, I will seek further clarification.

Members will be aware that last year Palestinian President Abbas submitted an application for full membership of the United Nations. That application has not been proceeded with because the Security Council has been unable to agree to a recommendation to the General Assembly, which is the required procedure. This year, as an interim measure, President Abbas has applied for observer state status in the General Assembly, a matter which is decided by the General Assembly alone. This status would be less than full membership of the United Nations but would be an advance on Palestine's current status as an observer organisation. The only current observer state is the Holy See, although Switzerland was also for many years an observer state prior to joining the United Nations. A draft resolution to this effect has been circulated at the United Nations and is expected to be put to a vote in the General Assembly tomorrow.

The move is primarily symbolic. It will not bring about an effective Palestinian state and not short-circuit the need for both Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate and agree to a comprehensive peace agreement. It may improve Palestine's access to other parts of the UN system, but, primarily, it represents a step forward towards the Palestinians' legitimate aspiration to sit, as a fully sovereign state, as a full member of the United Nation and the international system of states.

Ireland was the first western state to declare that the solution to the Middle East conflict must include a sovereign Palestinian state. That was stated by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, the late Brian Lenihan Snr, in the Bahrain Declaration in 1980. For many years the achievement of that Palestinian state, co-existing peacefully with Israel, has been the centrepiece of EU policy. We believe, as do all our EU partners, that there should be a Palestinian state and that, after many years of frustration, the time to achieve it must be soon. Nonetheless, the resolution to be voted on tomorrow has posed difficult questions for all EU member states because there is no Palestinian state.

The Palestinian Authority is an autonomous body under the Oslo accord, exercising control over a part of the Palestinian territories only. Some partners believed this move at the United Nations was, therefore, premature or might even negatively complicate the peace process. Ireland has carefully considered all of these issues and, on balance, decided that the proposed resolution is a modest step forward by the Palestinian people in line with the policies and objectives Ireland and the European Union have long espoused and which we could, in principle, support. Last year, in his address to the General Assembly in New York, the Tánaiste stated clearly that Ireland would support a balanced and responsibly phrased resolution to admit Palestine as an observer state.

The draft resolution, as it stands, reiterates the Palestinian aspiration for full UN membership and realisation of a full sovereign state. It reaffirms the Palestinians' commitment to the peaceful co-existence of Israel and Palestine. Crucially - this is the main point on which the Government wished to be satisfied - it confirms the need for the Palestinians and Israel to negotiate between them a comprehensive peace agreement covering the full range of issues to be decided. In this way, the Palestinians have made it clear, as we wished, that this move at the United Nations is not seen by them as a turning away from, or an alternative to, the peace process. President Abbas has stated strong international support in this vote will help him to re-engage in direct talks with Israel without preconditions.

The resolution is, without doubt, unwelcome to Israel and a strong vote in its favour should be seen by Israel as a strong signal of international impatience that the endless delays in the peace process must come to an end, but we see it very much as strengthening the status and confidence of the Palestinians and their leadership and, thus, their ability to re-enter talks with Israel to resolve their differences. A comprehensive peace is still there to be had and Ireland and the European Union will do everything they can to help both sides achieve it.

I am glad that the Tánaiste is confident this resolution will be passed by a large majority. While it is modest, it is a step forward and important that every opportunity is given to the Palestinians to have an appropriate forum in which to air their legitimate grievances. As the Minister of State said, Ireland was the first western state to declare that the solution to the Middle East conflict had to include a sovereign Palestinian state. That was announced on behalf of the then Government in 1980 by the late Brian Lenihan Snr as Minister for Foreign Affairs. I am glad that the European Union has adopted that policy. At all times, as the Minister of State acknowledged, we are horrified by the loss of life, the inhumanity to which both sides have been subject and the desperate conditions in which many Palestinians are forced to live.

An issue we raised with the Tánaiste at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade last week was the need to provide additional humanitarian assistance due to the recent conflict prior to the ceasefire of a week ago. Will the Minister of State convey this message again to the Tánaiste on the need to provide additional humanitarian assistance to those injured and affected by the recent violence through our overseas development programme? The European Union needs to have a proactive policy in this regard. At times, attention is focused on an area when there is a conflict there, but if the conflict eases or goes into abeyance without being resolved in the long term, the focus can shift away from providing much-needed humanitarian assistance. During statements on the European Council meeting earlier, my party leader Deputy Martin pointed out that the European Union had promised humanitarian assistance for Gaza, as well as developmental aid for new facilities there. Will the Minister relate to the Tánaiste our desire that the maximum assistance be given as rapidly as possible? Following what I hope will be a positive vote tomorrow at the UN, the European Foreign Affairs Council must decide the European Union's role in this conflict.

I will pass on the Deputy's message to the Tánaiste. He thanks the Deputy for his remarks, both at home and internationally, about the Government's position on this important issue. There has been wide support in the Oireachtas and among the public for this position. The Government hopes this measured advance at the UN will encourage the Palestinian people to believe they are slowly moving towards their goal, as well as confirming their commitment to a political path and a negotiated settlement with Israel. To Israel, we say the strong international support expected for this UN resolution is a sign of the international community's deep concern that the peace process needs to be given higher priority and to be actively driven forward.

Most states have, like Ireland, satisfied themselves that this move in no way detracts from the commitment of the Palestinians and of all of us to a negotiated peace among Israel, Palestine and their Arab neighbours, as well as ensuring Israel and Palestine can coexist in peace. As the Palestinians have said, they know that even after a successful vote at the UN they must reach agreement with Israel.

Departmental Properties

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. I know he has been quite active on the issue of the College Green site. We need to institute a process to examine and encourage the potential of a building swap between the Bank of Ireland on College Green and the Central Bank offices on Dame Street. I, along with many Dubliners, believe College Green has the potential to become one of our finest public spaces. It was previously known as Hoggen Green and is thought to be the site of the burial grounds of the Viking kings of Dublin. We all remember the US presidential addresses by both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama at the green, which highlight the potential of how this space can be used. College Green is flanked by our oldest university and its classic buildings run into Dame Street. The building now occupied by Bank of Ireland was our first Parliament. It was the world's first purpose-built two-chamber parliament, the foundation stone for which was laid in 1729. The Irish Parliament sat there until the Act of Union. After that, it served as a military garrison and an art gallery before eventually being bought by the Bank of Ireland.

It is time this building was returned to public use as a social dividend from the bank bailout. It is a known visitor spot for thousands of tourists from both home and abroad. The Bank of Ireland uses it as its principal bank branch. While negotiations on a transfer of ownership in the past were not successful, we do have a 15% stake in the bank now, which means we have a little bit of muscle in pursuing this swap. The decision by the Central Bank to move to the Docklands will allow the swap to happen. Sam Stephenson's modernistic building design on Dame Street would probably be much more suited to Bank of Ireland while the old parliament building is returned to State use. I hope the stakeholders - the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Dublin City Council and the Central Bank - will ensure this transfer occurs.

The former parliament is an ideal building to house the central Dublin lending library currently located in the Ilac Centre. It would provide an excellent performance space for theatre and musical groups, as well as having the potential to house a future regional assembly for Dublin following local government reform. It is pointless to use the building as a bank when it was designed as a parliament. Will the Minister redouble his efforts to consider the potential of this transfer? This landmark site has also held outdoor concerts on New Year's Eve, which shows the fantastic potential this area has. Transferring the building to public use would be seen by the citizens of Dublin as a social dividend from the bank bailout and would enhance the city from an environmental and tourism perspective.

While I convinced several American visitors to stay in Meath for several days rather than in Dublin, when they eventually visited the city, they were impressed by its magnificent buildings. People from both home and abroad are always impressed by Dublin's magnificent and historic buildings.

The Central Bank's principal offices are contained in the famous building designed by Stephenson and Gibney in Dame Street, Dublin. This very distinctive and assertive building, which was controversial when it was built in the late 1970s, was specially designed bespoke accommodation for Central Bank functions. It has been reported that the Central Bank is proposing to move its headquarters into what is currently a partially completed building in Dublin's Docklands once it has been fitted out in about three years' time. I am advised the Central Bank also uses several other offices in Dublin for its staff. I also note that another major banking property in Dame Street is coming on the market soon.

The Bank of Ireland at College Green is also a very distinctive building and is probably one of the most iconic buildings in Dublin city. This building was the first purpose-built parliament in Europe. It was completed in 1739 and it served as Ireland's Parliament until the Act of Union in 1801. After that, generations of Irish parliamentarians from Daniel O'Connell to Isaac Butt to Charles Stuart Parnell campaigned for the creation of a new Irish Parliament, which ironically almost happened. A return of the College Green building to the people and to public use could be a tangible response to the voices of history.

The design of Edward Lovett Pearse for the parliament building was revolutionary in that pre-revolutionary age. The building was effectively semi-circular, occupying almost 1.5 acres. It also underwent extension by the architect James Gandon, the man responsible for three of Dublin's finest buildings, the Custom House, the Four Courts and the King's Inns. Pearse's building was to open directly onto the green. The principal entrance consisted of Ionic columns extending around three sides of the entrance triangle and forming the letter E. There were also statues representing Hibernia, Fidelity and Commerce above the portico. James Gandon was responsible for the new entrance at the east of the building facing on to Westmoreland Street, rendered distinctive by its Corinthian columns. Robert Parke was responsible for the extension to the west side onto Foster Place. Thus, the building is not only important from a parliamentary point of view, it also tracks the history and progress of Irish design through the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Bank of Ireland at College Green has been chosen by two of the great political orators of our time as the site for their seminal speeches in Ireland, namely, Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. The building is at the hub of the nation's capital, the meeting and convergence point of the main arteries of the city. It is situated close to the original heart of historic Dublin and is almost of a vintage with Trinity College. To Dublin, College Green has the potential to become a cultural and iconic counterpoint to the great city centre nuclei and city squares of the world, including the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Trafalgar Square in London, the Place de la Concorde in Paris, Times Square in New York, without its craziness, St. Peter's Square in Rome, the Piazza Navona in Rome, Piazza del Campo in Sienna - I have never heard of some of these places before - Covent Garden in London, Hotel de Ville in Paris, Plaza Santa Ana in Madrid, Federation Square in Melbourne, Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the Grand Place in Brussels.

The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, has had several engagements with the senior management of the Bank of Ireland about the College Green building. Bank of Ireland regards this building as the jewel in its crown, commercially as well as architecturally. The College Green branch of the Bank of Ireland is probably its busiest branch in the network and, I am advised, contributes significantly to the group's bottom line.

The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, believes that it is implied in the Deputy's motion that a new cultural asset could simply be created by arranging a straight swop of one building for another. The idea of a swop implies that the Central Bank would have to surrender its current headquarters building in Dame Street and this would involve a significant write-down of asset value on its balance sheet. The Minister doubts if this would be acceptable to the Department of Finance. In addition, there would be substantial costs involved in adapting the College Green building to cultural uses and in professional fees and also in maintaining the building in future. The scale of funding required for such a project is currently beyond that available to my Department. However, the Minister will continue, where appropriate, to engage with Bank of Ireland senior management on the matter of the building lest the policy with regard to the building and other circumstances change. I am unsure whether that is the reply Deputy Humphreys wanted to hear.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to the Chamber. I tabled this topical issue to try to get people to start thinking about the Bank of Ireland and the space between it and Trinity College. It was not necessarily that I did not expect the response to the request to organise a swop. I am keen to put out the idea. Earlier today, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport referred to the launch of the connection of the Luas lines.

Let us imagine College Green with a Luas line running through it, with Trinity College on one side and with a centre for arts and literature in the Central Bank. We could use the space of the old senate chamber for a regional assembly, as part of the reform of local government, to engage people back into local democracy in the greater Dublin area. The development of the area as a piazza as well as the areas referred to by the Minister of State would be good not only for Dublin but for the nation. It would give us a real positive centre. Let us imagine a Christmas market spread between Trinity College, Dame Street and the Central Bank with only the Luas line coming through it. It could be a cultural hub. We could celebrate the greats of our literature in the Central Bank or, for our great musicians, we could utilise the piazza with the backdrop of the Central Bank and its beautiful lighting.

Naturally, we are financially constrained but that should not rule out a vision at this stage for the city, about which I am passionate, as are many Members. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see a transformation of the piazza in front of that building. When we run a Luas line through the area we should think of this generation and the next generation and a cultural hub for the city.

I understand the cost of joining up the Luas lines runs to €360 million. A small proportion of that could develop the whole piazza. Public opinion and pressure from the State could bring around the Bank of Ireland in some manner. It may not involve a building swop. Anyway, we need to keep a concentration on this area and bear in mind that there should be a social dividend from the banking sector to the citizens of Dublin and Ireland.

I call on the Minister of State for the final two minutes.

I will not take two minutes. I accept and I can see that Deputy Humphreys is passionate and has the matter thought out clearly. I have no doubt I will bring back the message to the Minister, Deputy Deenihan. When one believes in something strongly one should never give up on it. Deputy Humphreys is correct about Dublin city and we are all proud of it. What Deputy Humphreys has outlined has convinced me but the thing is to convince the bank to get out of it. As far as I am concerned, the bank is only as good as what comes out of it. Ultimately, whether something comes out of a hayshed or a fine building, it is the result that counts. Deputy Humphreys referred to history and there is a great deal of history attached to this city and this will bring people to it not only next year but every other year.

Irish Coast Guard Issues

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar. I wish to raise this issue again in a public forum. In July for many members from within the fishing community and along the west coast from Malin Head to Valentia it was a case of déjà vu or ground-hog day coming back to bite us with respect to the Malin Head and Valentia scenarios. The reality is that we are faced with a situation in this country where reconfigurations are taking place throughout the State boards. All sectors, bar none, are included in the reconfiguration options.

Let us consider the process since July. I wish to acknowledge the type of political process that has been employed. In fairness, it has been cross-community, cross-sector, cross-Border and cross-political in nature. There has been constructive engagement and this reflects the mood of the people from within the coastal voluntary services, within the fishing community and internally within the staff of the Coast Guard. I am keen to see how far advanced this constructive mechanism has come. I commend individuals from within the Coast Guard. I recall the Minister travelled to Malin Head on 27 July. He was accompanied by Chris Reynolds, head of the Coast Guard. That served as an interesting forum to discuss the various permutations within the sector. Certainly, we had a disagreement on what would represent the best mechanism to start off the conversation. I was keen to bring in various sectors and members of the community. In fairness, the Minister was insistent that he wanted to find out what was happening in the area and what services were being employed. The divisional manager at the Coast Guard station was interested in putting forward ideas to the Minister and these ideas have been put back into the system.

The Minister stated he would not accept any recommendation made in the Fisher report until he had his own thought process analysed. The hearings by the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications provided people with another opportunity to put across their points of view. It is welcome that extra time has been provided to allow Fisher consultants to undertake a further review. While I am regularly critical of consultancies for the sake of having them, this one allowed people time to get their heads around different reconfigurations.

I have raised the issue today because of the indicative timeframe of the end of October given in regard to a possible announcement on the issue. We are now approaching December and the Minister has had time to consider the further review undertaken by Fisher consultants. It would be welcome if he could update the House on the current position in terms of a decision being announced.

Before I respond on this issue, I would like to divert slightly and endorse the view expressed earlier by Deputy Humphreys. I support the proposed development of a plaza around College Green. If we were to develop a Luas service there and ban cars from the area and, possibly, construct a tunnel underneath, it could be a fabulous space. We have preferential shares in Bank of Ireland which we could perhaps exchange for the building in due course.

Turning to the substantive issue, I thank Deputy Joe McHugh for raising it. Value for money reviews of the Coast Guard and marine surveying functions of my Department have identified a number of issues which need to be addressed in Ireland's maritime transport safety and marine emergency response regimes. They include enhancing Ireland's pollution preparedness and response capability; improving Coast Guard volunteer training and management; addressing deficiencies in legislation relating to maritime safety and addressing various measures to promote greater efficiencies within the services.

I informed the Government in July that I would consider the Fisher reviews in detail and prepare an action plan to address the deficiencies identified. When I published the reviews in July, I made it clear that I would not accept or reject any of the recommendations made until a full assessment of the proposals had been undertaken and actions prioritised to address the issues identified as requiring attention. In publishing the reports I emphasised that preparing the action plan provided a valuable opportunity to create more efficient and effective maritime safety regulatory arrangements and emergency response services. At the same time, it is important to recognise that resources available to the maritime services are very limited and have to be deployed on a prioritised basis and as effectively and efficiently as possible to address the most urgent needs. The action plan is nearing conclusion and I expect to return to the Government in the coming weeks.

One aspect of the review which has attracted significant interest is that of the future of the co-ordination centres at Dublin, Valentia and Malin Head. There has been considerable interest in this matter. I appreciate that in seeking to protect local services passions can overflow. However, I was disappointed by the treatment of officials of my Department at a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. While most of those in attendance, including Deputy Joe McHugh, engaged constructively on the matter, contributions from a small number of members were deeply unfair and unjustified. I express my disappointment and disdain at the conduct of these members who embarrassed themselves and all of us, as parliamentarians.

In my Department's review of the Coast Guard and marine survey office services all options had to be considered. This necessarily included looking at whether the current configuration of co-ordination centres was appropriate and whether changes to it would deliver greater efficiency. This was all within the context of the expenditure and human resources constraints under which my Department operates. However, following careful consideration of the various options available, I will be proposing that the three centres remain open and that none be closed. Rather, through the utilisation of the most modern communications and IT infrastructure across a single national Coast Guard network, I will be proposing that the three centres be more closely aligned and integrated. Therefore, the current structure of three Coast Guards centres at Dublin, Malin Head and Valentia will continue to provide the current service but will be required to deliver new efficiencies in how these services are provided. External consultants are undertaking work on the details to assist in the preparation of the action plan.

I welcome the Minister's reply, in particular the sentence which states the three centres will remain open. This will be welcomed by all those involved in the sector, be it at voluntary or professional level in the Coast Guard, the fishing community or coastal communities in general. This outcome is the result of the application of common sense at the helm with due consideration being given to need closely aligning with process. It has been a lengthy process. While the current process commenced in July, the issue has been with us for the best part of 30 years.

I acknowledge that the Minister is awaiting completion of the action plan. It is hoped the reconfiguration and insight provided by personnel within the Coast Guard will be closely considered. I know that people within the sector have the capability, vision and expertise to make this work. I acknowledge that operation of the three centres, given the constraints in terms of the recruitment embargo, will be a challenge. However, those involved can make this work. I compliment the staff who have shown vision in this process. I also compliment them on not falling into the trap of making a political football out of this sensitive and important matter.

I also acknowledge the Minister's role in this matter, in particular informing us in advance of the announcement of receipt of the report in his office in July. He said at the time that he was prepared to listen and would not react or be forced into a decision based on a consultant's report. It is welcome that he and his officials have engaged on the issue. I acknowledge the work of his officials who attended the recent joint committee meeting. I do not intend to get involved in a discussion on his comments on that meeting which were directed at particular individuals. The officials have been competent throughout this process and had a keen listening ear to proposals from politicians across the political spectrum and community sector.

I thank the Deputy for his comments and invitation to visit Malin Head over the summer which provided a useful opportunity for me to see the centre in operation. As I said, significant changes in the Coast Guard in terms of efficiencies, information technology and structures will be required. There will also be a need to free up a particular number of staff from the Coast Guard and Marine Survey Office to do more in the space of training and, in particular, pollution control. The action plan should be completed in the next couple of weeks. I see no reason to defer announcing that we will continue to operate the three centre model under the new regime. That will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.