Topical Issue Debate

Bus Éireann

We know from media reports and confirmation from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, that industrial action is pending on behalf of workers in Bus Éireann. This choice of action has arisen after 11 long months of deliberations, negotiations and protracted discussions between management, the Labour Relations Court and workers.

I am concerned about the pending industrial action and the effect it will have on local communities. Does the Minister for Transport think there is any flexibility within his budget to support Bus Éireann in providing what the workers are seeking?

Public transport is vital to the economy and society in general. These talks have been going on for quite a while and, on 10 April, it seemed that progress was being made. I have been informed that they were parking the most contentious issues and were trying to deal with some of the other ones. The unions thought there was progress when they went in the other day. However, after seven minutes, the management gave them an ultimatum that they were going to introduce cuts on 12 May.

The Minister should now intervene. Workers should not have to subsidise the cut in Bus Éireann's subvention. I would like to hear the Minister's position on this matter. Does he agree with the management's position? The NBRU already has a strike mandate if the management introduces cuts. The union does not have to re-ballot its membership. I think it would be quite prepared to take that action if the management brings in those cuts on 12 May.

These workers earn €33,000 per year in basic pay, which is a third of what TDs earn. I do not take that money, but it is €92,000. The workers should not bear austerity cuts; they are providing a vital service. I would like to know if the Minister agrees with the management.

Everybody is shocked that Bus Éireann, with the apparent approval of the Minister, intends unilaterally to impose severe cuts in the pay and conditions of Bus Éireann workers from Sunday, 12 May. According to the latest figures, the company has carried out 36.5 million customer journeys. I am aware of Labour Court recommendation 20463, which recommended significant cuts for drivers, maintenance staff, inspectors and clerical executive workers. After five years of deep recession and major cost reductions in 2009, which impacted on pay and conditions for many drivers and other workers in Bus Éireann, the current threat is the last straw.

On modest core pay, the Labour Court recommended that the first two hours of overtime be cut from time and a half to time and a quarter. In addition, Sunday overtime is being cut from double time to time and a half, while public holidays are down to time and a quarter. These workers work unsocial hours and support the community when the bulk of the population is not working. Shift pay and annual leave are also being severely cut.

Those types of cuts, which are replicated for drivers and other grades, will be devastating for workers and their families. One driver with children at college told me yesterday that he will lose at least €3,000 a year. With property tax, rising health insurance, mortgages and other costs, workers feel they just cannot take any more. It is therefore understandable that the NBRU and SIPTU are balloting staff on whether to take action from the end of next week.

Many efficiencies have been brought about in the CIE companies. For example, we had the Deloitte review in 2008-09, along with retrenchments. In recent years, however the Minister has consistently cut the public service obligation subvention. According to the company's annual report for 2011, it looks like the subvention is down to about 15%. This is the lowest subvention of any major national public bus company in Europe.

The next few weeks constitute a particularly bad time for any kind of industrial action, given that the school bus service may well be involved, with 114,000 school-children facing exams. The Minister should take action. We need an alternative strategy which must involve further national support for the company and an end to attempts to scapegoat Bus Éireann workers for the current difficulties. We also need a much more dynamic and innovative management team, which is a prerequisite for change.

Today we learned that Bus Éireann's unilateral decision to cut costs, as well as seeking reductions in overtime, shifts in premium payments, longer working hours for office staff and reductions in annual leave, have resulted in the threat of students being unable to use public transport during an exam period. That is a very serious developing situation. Bus Éireann has outlined that it intends to target about €20 million worth of savings from 12 May, including €9 million from pay and conditions. As the Minister knows, this has resulted in SIPTU balloting over 900 of its members working in Bus Éireann. It now appears that strike action is very much on the cards. It is more of a probability than anything else.

We understand that Bus Éireann needs to find savings and on this side of the House we accept that. It is a given that as a result of increased fuel costs and lower passenger numbers which have resulted in a reduction of revenues for the company, the Minister is not in a position to support the CIE group as previous governments were. I understand that. The Labour Court has pointed out how this can be achieved. It is recognised that the company is in a difficult position.

The Labour Court has stated that the very viability of the transport operator is under threat if something is not done. However, the lack of agreement between management and staff has the potential seriously to disrupt thousands of travellers who rely on Bus Éireann's service every day. As industrial action is most likely to occur in the exam period for colleges and secondary schools in May, this is of particular concern to students and their parents who do not have access to private transport. If industrial action spreads to include school transport services, it is estimated that up to 114,000 children will be affected. That should bring into stark focus, both for the Minister and the Government, that action needs to be taken. Where do the Government and the Minister stand on this issue? Does the Government have a strategy to ensure that our public transport system will not let down those who cannot afford private transportation, particularly during the stressful exam period?

As all parties are currently committed to their positions in this dispute, there is entrenchment on both sides. How does the Minister plan to become involved? I accept the State has an industrial relations mechanism by which such a dispute would normally be resolved. Unfortunately, an impasse has been reached and it now appears extremely likely that strike action will take place, which will affect everyone concerned. The red lights are on and the Minister can see what is happening. He should not have allowed the travelling public or students who face exams to suffer to bring about a resolution because ultimately, such a resolution will come at some stage. Consequently, I call for the Minister to become involved as quickly as possible, thereby protecting those who depend so greatly on this vital transport network.

I note Deputy English was scheduled to speak. Is he not taking his slot?

He is not present.

In common with the other Members present, I am sure the Minister is acutely aware that the financial circumstances facing Bus Éireann at present are dire. It has been acknowledged by both the Labour Court and the trade unions' own financial assessors that the company is in a highly precarious position and its very viability and future are under imminent threat. Most people would accept that the company must identify savings fast. It has accumulated losses of more than €27 million over the past five years and this simply is not sustainable. The prospect of industrial action would have serious implications for the company's viability, for those workers and their jobs and for those who rely on the services. As other speakers have noted, the timing is appalling, as 114,000 students are preparing for exams and this may be their only mode of transport to sit those exams. In addition, an entire community of elderly and retired people who live in remote parts of the country rely heavily on these services. Moreover, initial data appear to show the Minister's initiative, The Gathering, will be a huge success. In this context, it is important that the service be fully operational during the months ahead in order that the undoubted benefits that will accrue will be shared evenly across the entire country and not simply in urban areas. As the Minister is aware, many of Ireland's cultural treasures are located in rural areas and it is important that visitors have access to them. As Bus Éireann will play a highly important role in ensuring access to remote parts of the country, the timing is appalling.

I have a couple of questions. First, how long has this process of engagement between the unions, the management and the Labour Relations Commission been under way? Does the Minister expect them to re-engage with one another in the short term? As for the workers who have raised this issue, is it not the case that, unlike other public servants, their core pay has been protected in the past and will be protected in the future? The Minister should address these basic issues.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important and pressing matter. Bus Éireann is in a very difficult financial position. It has incurred accumulated losses of €27 million in the past five years, which is unsustainable and now places the viability of the company at risk. In June 2012 the company announced its business recovery plan, with savings of €20 million-----

On a point of order, is a ministerial script available to Members?

I do not know, but the Deputy could listen-----

I will let the Deputy know in a moment.

-----if he likes.

The Deputy could listen. However, I am sure a script will be provided for him.

Hold on. This is not acceptable from the Minister.

Tá siad ag teacht anois.

It is not the responsibility of the Minister to provide scripts.

Actually, it is. When the Deputy has been in the Dáil for a bit longer, he will understand that.

I understand the scripts are now being distributed. I also note that none of the Deputies opposite provided a script to me. I was obliged to listen to what they had to say and I hope they will listen to what I have to say. Would it be possible for me to start from scratch?

I have a script for the Minister, if he wants it.

The Deputy did not distribute it. However, if it is okay with the Deputy, I will not have a row with him over something petty and procedural. This is an important issue.

I have provided a script now-----

-----and the Deputy did not.

I would like to rub clean the blackboard and have the Minister start again.

I thank the Acting Chairman.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. Bus Éireann is in a very difficult financial position. It has incurred accumulated losses of €27 million in the past five years, which is unsustainable and places the viability of the company at risk. In June 2012 the company announced its business recovery plan, with savings of €20 million, to bring the company back to profitability by 2013. Approximately €9 million in savings were to come from terms and conditions, with €11 million to come from operational savings. Although many of the operational savings have been delivered, no progress has been made on savings from terms and conditions, despite the involvement of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court in the process. Without the necessary savings from changes to terms and conditions, as well as ongoing inter-city service changes, Bus Éireann is facing annual losses of more than €11 million, which simply are not sustainable.

According to the Labour Court and the trade unions' own independent financial assessors, Bus Éireann is in a precarious financial situation, with the very viability of the company now under threat. In its recommendation of 8 February last, the Labour Court concluded that significant reductions in the company's cost base, including payroll costs, were essential to ensure its future and to protect employment within the company. Under the company's business recovery plan and the Labour Court recommendation, there would be no reductions to basic pay or employment levels. Moreover, there have been no reductions to basic pay to date, despite the reductions applied to so many others in the country. It is important to emphasise that these issues have been through the full industrial relations machinery of the State, culminating in a Labour Court recommendation that recognised that the savings must be made to protect the jobs of staff. Before implementing the recommendation, the company engaged further with the unions through the Labour Relations Commission to ascertain whether any alternative measures could be identified that would deliver the same savings. This process did not identify any viable alternatives and now, 11 months after negotiations started and three months after the Labour Court recommendation was handed down, the company simply cannot postpone the implementation any longer. I am assured it will engage with the unions at any time and in any place to discuss alternative approaches, but unless these are agreed, the implementation date of 12 May must proceed.

The future of the company must be secured for the public that depends on its services and for the benefit of its employees. Bus Éireann runs commercial Expressway services that are currently loss-making and legally, the State cannot subvent these services. The viability of these services can only be secured if these savings are achieved now. I greatly hope the management and the unions will use the period between now and 12 May to engage in further intensive dialogues, which will ensure the necessary savings are made and that the provision of bus services for the public and the jobs of the staff are preserved.

It is important to explain how Bus Éireann works to those who may not know. Essentially, it operates three sets of services. It operates schools services on a cost-recovery basis. It cannot make a profit on those services because, if it did, it would be obliged to put such services out to tender. The company operates a second set of services, namely, public service obligation, PSO, services. While these are subsidised by my Department, Bus Éireann cannot use the profits made from the PSO to cross-subsidise other services because that would be in breach of competition law. Finally, it operates commercial services that cannot be subsidised or subvented due to state aid rules. Consequently, this is not an issue of subvention and anyone who thinks I can find €1 million or €2 million from my budget or can re-profile spending and provide additional subvention to Bus Éireann to solve this problem is completely wrong, does not understand the facts and is misleading people. I cannot subvent commercial services that are now loss-making to the extent that they cannot be continued.

I also wish to conclude with the important point that there may be some Members of this House, particularly on the benches opposite, who think this Bus Éireann dispute is somehow emblematic of a bigger battle between unions and the Government over the Croke Park agreement or between management and workers or that it is some sort of ideological or philosophical debate about austerity. It is not. This is about a company that operates commercial services in competition with commercial operators and which is losing money. Its losses now are unsustainable, the jobs now are at risk, and the Labour Court says so. I wish to protect jobs, to save this publicly owned company and to protect services. The only way in which this can be done is for the Labour Court recommendation to be respected. I appeal to the Members opposite in this regard. There are bus drivers and Bus Éireann staff who have families to feed and mortgages to pay. There are passengers all over the country who need to get to work or to school. Let us not see bus drivers or Bus Éireann staff being out of pocket or anyone being inconvenienced, because the only way in which this can end is through the Labour Court recommendation being respected.

I thank the Minister. While the Minister has answered my question, he might clarify it a little. I asked whether there was flexibility within his budget to support Bus Éireann, but if my understanding is correct, he stated clearly that even if this was the case, he is not in a position to subvent commercial services. He should confirm this point. In addition, I refer to the first of the three sections within the organisation, namely, the provision of school services. Will they be affected next week or will that service be separate to the actions that will be taken?

According to figures supplied to me, €58 million was taken out of Dublin Bus in 2009.

The sum in question was €38 million from the drivers, with another €20 million now being sought, and €9 million relating to pay and conditions. This is core pay. I am a post office worker and although we very seldom got pay increases, we always negotiated when shift work, extra night work and other allowances were involved to try to support the wages we had, which were very low. These are very low paid workers and they cannot and will not accept these cuts. I ask the Minister to intervene and to bring the management back into the talks. The other day management returned, stayed seven minutes and walked out, leaving an ultimatum that the cuts were to be brought in on 12 May. That is not the way to do business. Managers should be sitting in with the unions right now, discussing the issue.

There is no question here of a bigger battle, an ideology or whatever. All we want is that passengers will not be inconvenienced and that drivers, who are already on very modest pay and conditions, who have to work weekends, rest days and public holidays, will not be more seriously damaged by this. The Minister is the person in charge. What is he going to do about it? Is he going to go back to the industrial relations machinery or try to use some other methodology to have this matter resolved?

I refer to Bus Éireann management. A constant complaint I hear from workers is that senior management has not taken its share of the burden. Is this the case? Would the Minister know if it was the case? Is there not a question to answer in that regard? Does senior management not also have a significant responsibility to offer new and innovative alternatives to what is being proposed?

The Minister spoke at length about public service obligations, PSO, and what managers in Bus Éireann could and could not do. The reality is that the Minister has slashed the public service obligation support for this company. I remember listening to him speak during the previous Dáil. He has no time for public sector companies and wanted to privatise this one. In the United Kingdom, when the national bus service was privatised, the result was an oligopoly of private operators. That is what the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, wants.

I asked the Minister what I thought were three serious questions. First, where does the Government stand on this? The response I got was that the Minister would stand idly by. Second, I asked what strategy the Government expects to put in place to deal with those who will be affected by this strike if it goes ahead, who will not be in a position to afford private transportation. Third, I asked what action the Minister intends to take to mediate between both sides. The best I got from him on those two questions was that he very much hopes that management and unions can get their act together in the period concerned.

More than that is needed from the Minister. He will have to take this as a serious issue. I am not having a go at him personally. I know he is doing his best in this regard. However, he will have to try harder and must put the two sides together. He will have to involve himself in a process of mediation. Clearly, neither the Labour Court nor the machinery of the State that is normally involved in resolving industrial relations is working in this instance. We conceded that and the Minister went on to comment about the Government and the unions vis-à-vis the Croke Park agreement. I believe there are people within the union structure who are very annoyed with the senior sections of their own organisations, who do not believe they are getting a fair hearing through the process of mediation available. This will require a much more involved process and greater intervention by the Minister. I look forward to his taking that on board.

I thank the Minister for his response and I welcome his clarity, particularly in regard to the issue of subvention. It is very important that the staff and the unions are aware the Minister does not have at his disposal a blank cheque that could address this issue. It is important that clarity is available.

I have some other questions and thank the Minister for his answers. How long has the process of negotiation been under way? Does he believe there will be engagement between the unions and the management of Bus Éireann in the coming ten days with a view to averting this action? Does he foresee a resolution?

I can confirm to Deputy Regina Doherty that I cannot subvent commercial services. Bus Éireann can neither use profits from PSO services to subvent these services nor can it make profits from school bus services. I do not know whether school bus services will be affected. That will be a union call, and it is up to the unions to decide whether they want to affect the school services.

In answer to Deputy Walsh, the process has been going on for 11 months, at first with the LRC, then in the Labour Court. The court made its recommendation three months ago and we returned to the LRC and asked it to see if that could be tweaked. Those talks did not go anywhere. At the request of union leaders at senior level I was asked to intervene to defer implementation, which was done. Time has now run out. The company is in a position whereby it will not be able to pay the bills in the coming months because, unfortunately, 11 months were spent getting nowhere, which is very sad. Talks can continue at any time and place until 12 May but on that day the Labour Court recommendations will be implemented. There is no alternative. My role is to tell the people the truth about that and I hope people present, when they assess that, will understand it is the truth and will tell people over whom they have influence that this is the case. In addition, my role is to put in place contingencies in so far as it is possible to put in place alternatives, and to provide information where possible. That is what my Department and the National Transport Authority are now doing.

Deputies Joan Collins and Broughan pointed out that most of the staff in Bus Éireann are on modest core pay, which is entirely correct. It is also correct that core pay is not being reduced in these proposals. In fact, it is not being cut at all in Bus Éireann.

Shift pay is part of core pay.

Bus Éireann is not party to the Croke Park agreement. There was no pension levy or public sector pay cut and there will be no cuts to basic pay.

They had to pay the universal social charge.

What the Labour Court recommended is that there be reductions in overtime, premium pay and unvouched allowances and expenses only.

Property Taxation Administration

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issues matter. Many issues concerning the property tax have arisen since it was included in the troika agreement three years ago, including in recent times exemptions for unfinished estates. That is not the reason I raise this matter. I raise it on behalf of those who want to pay their property tax and fulfil their responsibility but who are finding obstacles being put in their way. They have heard the warnings from the Revenue Commissioners who claim they will get the money in any case, and by and large these people wish to fulfil their responsibilities.

The first problem is trying to register. Large numbers of people did not receive letters from Revenue. I do not know the reason for that. Perhaps there is no database. I have had many people come to my office and my clinics who have paid their household charge and who, I presume, should have been on a database as a result, yet they still have not received letters. They telephone the lo-call number for Revenue and in some cases are left hanging on for 20 minutes before they get to talk to anybody. When they do get through, they say they wish to pay the tax and ask for a form so they can register because registration will not be done over the telephone. Revenue does not send them the letters and they are then told they can register online. There were six people in my office in Claremorris this morning whom my staff helped to register online. We are glad to do that and glad to help them but it should not be the function of any of our offices to do the work that is supposed to be done by Revenue.

As for the 20 minutes some people are left hanging on, is it the case that there are not enough people on the other end of the line to cope with what is coming their way? The final day for registration by post is next Tuesday, 7 May. Monday is a bank holiday and there will be no lo-call service or anything else for the people making queries. I appeal for the date of registration by post to be extended to the same day as the date for online registration, which is at the end of May. I do not want to see this turning into another SUSI or what happened when medical cards were centralised, but it seems that is how it is developing.

I am aware that homeowners are required to register and pay their taxes but many of those who have not received letters are ignorant of their responsibilities. What has been done to inform people who live abroad and families who have emigrated recently about their responsibility to pay the tax?

I thank Deputy O'Mahony for raising this matter. The feedback on the ease with which the local property tax, LPT, can be paid has generally been positive. I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that over 400,000 people have successfully filed their LPT returns to date and have either paid immediately or selected one of the other available payment options. I understand this afternoon's tax receipts announcement for April will confirm that approximately €21 million has already been paid to the Exchequer in respect of the LPT. The large numbers that are successfully meeting their LPT obligations strongly indicate that not many people are experiencing problems when paying the tax. Revenue is providing a dedicated helpline at 1890 200255 to assist any person experiencing difficulties in either paying or filing and this service is proving to be beneficial in regard to ensuring people clearly understand how to meet their LPT obligations. I am informed by Revenue that a number of different payment options have been put in place to assist people in meeting their obligations, including the option to pay the tax in one single payment or to phase payments in equal instalments from 1 July 2013 to the end of the year. Revenue's strategy in this regard is to ensure taxpayers have a choice of payment options from which they can choose the method which is most suited to their individual circumstances.

Revenue has provided eight separate payment options to facilitate people in meeting their LPT obligations, including a single debit authority, which operates like an electronic cheque, is activated by completing the payslip on the LPT return and will not be deducted from bank accounts by Revenue any earlier than 21 July 2013; debit or credit cards; cheques, bank drafts or postal orders; cash payments, including debit and credit cards, through Revenue approved payment service providers; phased cash payment arrangements, including debit or credit cards, through Revenue approved payment service providers; deduction at source from salary or occupational pension commencing on 1 July 2013; deduction at source from certain payments received from the Department of Social Protection, provided that the deduction does not reduce the personal rate payment to less than €186 per week or deduction at source from payments received from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine; or direct debit commencing on 15 July 2013 and deducted on the 15th day of each month thereafter up to 15 December 2013. For the cash payment option, the approved payment service providers appointed by Revenue are An Post, TaxPay, Payzone and Omnivend. These service providers were approved because they have extensive nationwide outlets and are easily accessible. They provide liable persons with the facility to pay the LPT in full or on a phased weekly or monthly basis as best suits individual circumstances.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply but it did not address any of the questions I raised. I ask him to contact the Minister for Finance to seek a comprehensive response to my questions. I have been contacted by six people this morning and other public representatives in my area are dealing with elderly people who have not received letters and cannot access the Internet on their own. What is going to be done for these people? Will the deadline be extended? They want to pay their household tax. I accept what the Minister of State had to say about the millions of euro that have already been paid. I could have given a long speech about how people have accepted the valuations but I am specifically concerned about the people who we cannot afford to leave outside the law. I understand that it is not possible to pay by cheque. The people to whom I refer cannot access the online payment facility.

Is it necessary to register uninhabitable houses which were exempt from the household charge? Are church properties or parish priests' houses exempt as charitable organisations? I would be grateful if I could receive answers to my questions.

They Deputy has raised a number of perceived difficulties.

They are operational difficulties.

His concerns will be conveyed to the Minister and the Department.

The important thing is urgency.

We are dealing with a deadline of next Tuesday.

The Minister is satisfied that Revenue has provided a significant amount of information on payment options and both the LPT return and the booklet, Your Guide to Local Property Tax, covers this in some detail. It is also open to property owners who have queries on any aspect of the various payment options to call Revenue's dedicated LPT helpline. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to pay what is due. It is not in Revenue's interest to place obstacles in the way of paying the LPT.

The kernel is the need for urgency because of the deadlines and the ability to contact Revenue.

Commemorative Coins

As the Minister of State will be aware, The Gathering is taking place this year as Ireland seeks to attract visitors from around the world, including in particular people with family connections to Ireland. Next year is the anniversary of another important event, namely, the Battle of Clontarf. I understand the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is organising various events to commemorate this anniversary. It will provide an opportunity to focus on our past and our military victories, although that is a matter which has gone out of fashion in modern Europe.

It also allows us to remember our connection with Scandinavia. Dublin is largely a Viking settlement and the Irish gene pool bears a remarkable similarity to that of Iceland. Either Irish people were very good swimmers or else they went to Iceland as slaves.

In any event, Brian Boru died immediately after the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 and next year we will mark the passing of a millennium since that important event. This provides an opportunity to arrange international events and to increase co-operation with other countries. The Brian Boru project in Killaloe has submitted a request to the Central Bank that it issue a commemorative coin next year to mark the death of Brian Boru 1,000 years ago. The forthcoming millennium anniversary has energised the community of Killaloe, an old, medieval settlement which dates back to Brian Boru's time. When he was High King of Ireland Brian Boru had his capital at Kincora, a settlement at the top of the hill in Killaloe on which a Catholic church was built approximately 100 years ago. St. Flannan's Church of Ireland Cathedral, which is located at the bottom of the hill adjacent to the river, is an important archaeological site. It is a beautiful building similar to St. Mary's Cathedral in Limerick and both structures were commenced around the time of Brian Boru and built in the Romanesque style, of which Ireland has many important examples.

As the Minister will be aware, the Central Bank issued a commemorative coin featuring a line from James Joyce's Ulysses, which was unfortunately misquoted. There is, therefore, a facility to issue commemorative coins. The Central Bank acts as the agent for the Minister for Finance in respect of the issue of coins. Accordingly, any commemorative or collector coins issued by the bank require prior approval from the Minister. I urge him to consider approving the request to issue a coin commemorating Kincora and the anniversary of Brian Boru's death at the Battle of Clontarf 1,000 years ago.

I thank Deputy McNamara for submitting this topic for discussion as it is a matter in which I have an interest.

I understand the Central Bank's numismatic advisory committee has recommended that in 2014 the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf be marked with the issue of a €20 gold proof coin. The Central Bank will shortly submit its recommendations for the 2014 collector coin programme to the Minister for Finance for approval. I expect the Minister will take a favourable view of the recommendation for a coin to mark the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf. The Central Bank's plans would involve the issue of a small gold coin with a weight of 0.5g and a likely issue limit of 10,000.

Deputies may be interested to learn that later this year the Central Bank will issue collector coins to mark the centenary of the 1913 Lock-out and the 50th anniversary of the visit of President John F. Kennedy to Ireland in 1963. Next year will also see the issue of a small gold coin with a Celtic theme that will feature the Rock of Cashel.

Recent collector coin issues by the Central Bank have been very successful, with the James Joyce coin, to which the Deputy referred, and Michael Collins coin selling out almost immediately after their launch. I am sure the Battle of Clontarf millennium coin will also be very popular. I am not sure if this will satisfy the Deputy as I am not certain whether he wants the place of birth of Brian Boru or the place of his heroic death to be commemorated.

It is good news that Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf will be commemorated by the Government next year. I am also anxious that any celebration of the life of Brian Boru will include Killaloe and Kincora where he was based. This could be done in various ways, one of which is by issuing a commemorative coin. I am pleased the Minister for Finance will consider a recommendation to this effect from the Central Bank and I hope he accedes to it. The contribution to Irish history of Kincora and Killaloe could be acknowledged in other ways. During a period when there was much more money floating around, the Cabinet also floated around, holding nine meetings outside Dublin between 2000 and 2006. A number of meetings were also held in Farmleigh during the previous Irish Presidency in 2004. While I accept the decision of the Cabinet on financial grounds to confine its sittings to Dublin, as the economy improves, I ask that it consider holding a meeting in Killaloe in 2014 to commemorate its unique contribution to Irish history as the base and home of Brian Boru and site of St. Flannan's Cathedral, with which he was closely connected.

I acknowledge the Deputy's interest in promoting Killaloe where Brian Boru was born. As a part of his constituency, it is only natural that he would seek to do so. Killaloe is Brian Boru's place of birth and Clontarf is the location where he met his heroic death on Good Friday 1014 while praying for Ireland in his tent. Another place near my constituency where Brian Boru could also be commemorated comes to mind. I wonder if Deputies know where the ashes of Brian Boru reside.

As the Deputy from Tipperary knows well, the ashes of Brian Boru rest in the ancient city of Armagh. I hope that when we commemorate and celebrate Brian Boru's life, we will include in the reckoning Killaloe, Clontarf, Armagh and other places along the way. To address the core of the Deputy's question, a coin will be issued to commemorate Brian Boru's death 1,000 years ago.

May I make a brief point?

I do not believe Brian Boru ever got as far as Kerry because if he did, he would never have got out of it. I jest.

Brian Boru went to school on Inishfallen Island on the lakes of Killarney. He used to pass my door on his way to and from school.

Fodder Crisis

I am pleased the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, is present for this debate. I compliment him on intervening in the fodder crisis, which has reached extremely serious proportions. According to one school of thought, the crisis would have been avoided if we had experienced more sunshine earlier in the year. Grass growth is approximately six months behind in practically every area of the country owing to climactic conditions dating back 12 months or more. For example, 2011 was not a productive year for grass growth. While the recent weather may be due to global warming, conditions in the south west have created a catastrophe.

Last November, when County Kerry was experiencing extremely high levels of rainfall in comparison to the east, I pointed out to the Minister that tonnes of hay were being brought into the county. I understand a dealer or merchant from County Wicklow was collecting hay, probably in counties Carlow, Wexford and Waterford, and making daily deliveries to County Kerry.

The dealer's lorry seemed to be operating around the clock, with two drivers on hand at all times. This illustrates the serious and extreme difficulties that people were then experiencing. At that time, I inquired of the Minister as to how matters were likely to be in January. It is now May and the Minister's intervention has helped to ease the situation. However, there is still great concern in many remote areas where the co-operative movement may not be as strong as elsewhere and where distribution is not as straightforward. Farmers in such areas are faced with a terrible dilemma.

I compliment the IFA on the efforts it is making and on the amount of money it is expending. I welcome the co-operative system that has been introduced in recent days. This is a great initiative. I compliment those farmers who were fortunate to have surplus fodder and who co-operated with their neighbours and with farmers in other parishes. What has happened recently shows that the co-operative spirit is still present in this country. The co-operative movement was initiated by Horace Plunkett in the 19th century and the spirit behind it remains among the people, which is good.

Tomorrow is supposed to be the closing date for the transport scheme. I ask the Minister to extend the distribution system to the marts and private merchants in order that €1 million allocated might be fully utilised. If there is a need to extend it by a further couple of weeks, then this should be done. Serious consideration should be given to a further extension because many people remain in dire straits.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue because it presents me with the opportunity to clarify a number of matters. It is rare that I am asked during a Topical Issue debate to do something which I already did the day before. However, that is the case in this instance. Yesterday, we extended the deadline relating to the transport subsidy for an additional week until 10 May. That said, this is a good time to explain to people the other things that are happening.

This is a genuine crisis for many farmers and it has resulted in a great deal of stress in a large number of farm households throughout the country. My Department has been involved in trying to manage this very difficult situation for many months. This situation did not just arise in the past two weeks. Last year's very poor summer - with high levels of rainfall and a lack of sunshine - resulted in poor and smaller quantities of silage. We were aware in August and September of 2012 that we were going to incur huge expense in the context of being obliged to supplement the feed for beef and dairy herds through the winter. The onset of winter came early, which meant that grass growth ceased earlier than normal. In addition, it was extremely wet and people were obliged to bring their animals indoors. Some individuals had to keep their animals indoors during the summer and the autumn. We worked with farmers, in conjunction with Teagasc, through the winter months to extend and maximise the potential of their fodder. However, the winter lasted six weeks longer than normal. As a result, grass growth is five weeks behind the level at which it should be at this time of year. That has resulted in a real and measurable fodder shortage with which we are trying to deal.

In the context of our response to the crisis, any farmer who is in an emergency situation and who is of the view that he or she cannot feed his or her cattle because he or she cannot access or cannot afford to buy fodder should contact my Department immediately on Callsave 1850 211 990. No animal should starve as a result of a lack of fodder. We will intervene to ensure that animals do not starve and we will pay for the feed required. The Department has received over 400 calls to that number. Approximately 60 of these related to extreme situations in which we were obliged to intervene through our local veterinary offices in order to ensure that animals were fed. We make such interventions on a confidential basis and, in such circumstances, farmers should feel comfortable contacting us. We referred the other 300 plus cases to co-ops which are importing and providing feed.

What has happened in recent weeks in the agrifood industry has been extremely impressive. People and organisations have come together and the dairy co-ops have already imported more than 300 loads of hay. Each of the 20 bales contained in these loads can feed approximately 150 animals a day. This means that, to date, 500,000 animals have been fed by means of the hay that has been imported. In addition, there has been a significant increase in the amount of maize being imported by Glanbia through Dublin Port. The response has been quick and it is being encouraged by our transport subsidy, which has been extended for an extra week. We have informed non-dairy co-ops that want to bring in large quantities of feed that if they can provide the same type of billing system as that used by the dairy co-ops and if there is a genuine lack of availability of hay through such co-ops in their areas, then we will deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

There is assistance available for farmers who are in emergency situations. These individuals should contact the Department. I can inform farmers who are seeking additional hay that there is more on the way. The shipments that will arrive next week will represent a significant step up on the amounts already imported. In the meantime, grass has begun to grow again. Roughage is the issue when it comes to herds. Our focus in the context of spending public moneys has been to deal with the problem that exists, namely, the need to import large volumes of hay into the country. I am glad to inform the House that our efforts in this regard are working.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He has sent out a strong message to everyone involved in the industry that crises of this nature can be tackled if there is goodwill among people. The response to this crisis was organised very quickly and we must ensure that the momentum is maintained. I thank the Minister for responding positively to the parliamentary question I tabled on Tuesday last by extending the transport subsidy to 10 May. I had requested that it be extended to 15 May but what he has done is still a wonderful and very appropriate gesture in these challenging times. I also requested that the distribution system be extended to the marts. Those who own and manage the marts have their fingers on the pulse and are aware of the position in their localities. In view of the unpredictability of our weather, we do not know how long this crisis will last.

Another matter I should refer to is the scarcity of lorries suitable for transporting hay. It would be great if lorries with flat trailers could be used in emergencies. Will the Minister consider advancing single farm and other relevant payments to the farmers who have been badly affected by the crisis?

On each occasion I give an answer, I am presented with further requests. This is a serious matter and the Department and the industry have responded to it together in a very comprehensive way. Help is on the way for the many farmers who continue to experience significant shortages of fodder.

In an extreme situation, we will intervene and feed their animals until they can afford to do so. Co-ops and, in some cases, marts are importing large volumes of fodder and trying to get it out to farms as quickly as possible. This will continue.

We have discussed the matter with a number of banks. The key banks have attended long meetings in my Department. They assure me that they want to lend money to farmers as bridging finance to get over the credit hump that many farmers experience after a difficult winter. The main co-ops are extending a great deal more credit than they normally would. We are undertaking an initiative to try to return the grazing season to normal and to encourage farmers to buy and put out fertiliser. During May, all co-ops are providing interest-free credit to purchase fertilisers in order to encourage farmers to return to a normal grass growing season.

I thank the farming organisations, which have been supportive during this difficult time. I thank the Irish Dairy Board, which has responded to our requests for help by putting a significant fund in place to support dairy farmers. As of today, SuperValu has announced a significant fund to support farmers who are struggling because of fodder shortages. Whether it is retailers, the Irish Dairy Board, co-ops or farming organisations that are putting money behind their words or whether it is my Department and the arms of the State, including Teagasc, that are working with farmers, there is a significant collective effort to get farmers through a difficult number of weeks. We will pull through. Given the strong prices for beef, dairy and other agrifood commodities, we can salvage this year, but we need to get through the coming weeks. To do so, significant volumes of fodder need to be imported. This is happening.