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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 16 Jul 2014

Vol. 848 No. 4

Topical Issue Debate

Pupil-Teacher Ratio

I thank the Minister for taking this issue. I congratulate her on her new position and wish her well in future. School staffing, pupil-teacher ratios and classroom size have always been particularly emotive issues, especially for smaller schools, as they relate to children's education and young children in the case of primary schools. The emotion is not just confined to parents, who want their children to get the best possible education, as it also involves staff and teachers in schools. Teachers in small schools build quite a rapport with the community, including parents.

The criteria for dealing with the allocation of teaching posts are set out clearly in the staffing circular 007/2014. As a result of these criteria, 39 small schools will lose a teacher next September, and there is a particular reference to budgetary measures in 2012. I am from a country school which had three teachers and I have seen a change in the manner in which teachers deal with the curriculum now. It is much tougher and there is much more work involved.

Based on a drop in figures last year, schools will lose teachers this year. I will give the example of Meath Hill school in my constituency, where this emotive issue has become evident. It seems illogical that a school with an increasing number of students this year is set to lose a teacher based on last year's figures. Last year, student numbers dropped to 78, which I agree is a significant drop, but the enrolment for this year is 87. Last year was the first in which the school increased the number of teachers to four and much time and effort has been spent building up the school. For it to lose a teacher this year, when student numbers have increased and will do so again next year, is illogical. In the school, one teacher will now have to take first, second and third class together, as junior and senior infants have their own special classroom that has been built. It is very difficult to split fifth and sixth classes, which usually stay together, so the decision was made for first, second and third class to stay together. That means a total of 37 students under nine will be in one classroom, which raises serious concerns. This is not the only matter for a teacher, who will find it difficult to keep an eye on 37 students under nine, as the curriculum has changed and there is much more work involved. There is a serious health and safety issue because we are talking about large classes in small schools.

There has been an appeal and in this case I was informed that if student numbers had only dropped to 80 last year, the appeal outcome would have been positive. I am not sure I see the difference between having 78 students and 80 students. The school is losing a teacher based on last year's student numbers. I would appreciate if the Minister could consider the issue, as the process seems illogical. I look forward to her response.

I thank Deputy McEntee for her good wishes and for giving me the opportunity to outline the position relating to staffing in primary schools. I note the issues raised by the Deputy. The criteria used for the allocation of teachers to schools are published annually on the Department's website. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September. The staffing schedule is the mechanism used for allocating mainstream teaching posts to all schools. It operates in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of location. It currently operates on the basis of a general average of one classroom teacher for every 28 pupils with lower thresholds for DEIS band 1 schools.

The staffing schedule also includes the provision whereby schools experiencing rapid increases in enrolment can apply for additional permanent mainstream posts on developing grounds, using projected enrolment for the following September, which is September 2014 in the case of the coming school year. The staffing process includes an appeals mechanism for schools which are due to lose a teacher. Affected schools can submit an appeal under certain criteria to an independent appeals board. Details of the appeal criteria are available in the staffing schedule, which is published annually on the website of the Department of Education and Skills. The primary staffing appeals board meets three times per year and the board operates independently of the Minister and the Department. Its decision is final. In addition, the staffing appeals process at primary level has been extended for the coming school year to allow schools not gaining an additional teaching post under the developing schools criterion to submit an appeal to the primary staffing appeals board. This appeal criterion is targeted at those schools that make a significant contribution to the provision of school places and so assist the response to demographic growth within their area and, as a result, are under significant pressure on their class sizes at infants level. Circular 0007/2014 provides details for schools wishing to make an appeal.

The allocation of all teaching posts is contingent on compliance with redeployment arrangements. The core function of the redeployment arrangements is to facilitate the redeployment of all surplus permanent teachers to other schools that have vacancies. The redeployment of all surplus permanent teachers is key to the Department's ability to manage within its payroll budget and ceiling on teacher numbers. The staffing arrangements enable projected enrolments to be taken into account in the case of small primary schools that are losing a classroom post as a result of the budget 2012 measure mentioned by the Deputy and schools that are experiencing significant increase in their pupil enrolments. The Department regards this approach as reasonable and appropriate. It would not be practical or logistically possible to successfully operate the teacher allocation and redeployment process if there is any further expansion of this approach regarding projected enrolments.

The configuration of classes and the deployment of classroom teachers are done at local school level. School authorities are advised in the staffing schedule to ensure that the number of pupils in any class is kept as low as possible, taking all relevant contextual factors into account, such as classroom accommodation, fluctuating enrolment, etc. In particular, they should ensure, as far as possible, that there is an equitable distribution of pupils in mainstream classes and the differential between the largest and the smallest classes is kept to a minimum.

I note the school the Deputy referred to and the issue concerning small schools. It is a very transparent system, one that people understand and the appeal system is independent. We need to keep all those factors in the system.

I thank the Minister for her response. It is important that people know it is an independent process and I accept it is. This removes any illusion that people can interfere in the process and I welcome that. I find it illogical, however, that a school, which for the first time received its fourth teacher last year, is losing one this year. I find it hard to explain that to parents, and rightly so. When the number increases from 78 to 87, that should be reconsidered. We appealed twice under two different criteria. I would appreciate it if the Minister could look into how this is addressed.

I hear what the Deputy says. I have not been in this job for very long. The system deals with all kinds of schools around the country and it is very important that it is transparent and seen to be fair, and that there is an appeal system. The appeal system does particularly take account of the small primary schools the Deputy is talking about. Where possible, I will ensure that there is fairness all round and that the issues the Deputy raises are taken into account.

School Completion Programme

I wish my constituency colleague, the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, well in his new post. If the Minister for Education and Skills has a moment to spare, this issue crosses over into her remit and I would appreciate if she could bear with us.

As the school holidays kick in and staff and students take a well-earned rest after another school year, this is an opportune time to take stock and begin planning for the upcoming school year. We must also acknowledge that there are children all over the country in primary and secondary schools who are still in education due in no small part to the school completion programme, SCP. The programme was set up as part of the Department of Education and Skills’s delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, strategy. Its aim is to increase the numbers of young people staying in primary and secondary school and in doing so to improve the numbers of pupils who successfully complete the senior cycle or the equivalent.

The SCP operates in 470 primary schools and 224 post-primary schools. There are 124 local school completion projects employing 248 full-time, 627 part-time and 2,211 sessional and other staff. It focuses on targeting and providing supports to young people most at risk of early school-leaving. It involves identifying and supporting children at risk of not reaching their potential in the educational system because of poor attendance, participation and retention. It does this via initiatives such as breakfast clubs, homework clubs, after-school supports, mentoring programmes and therapeutic interventions. The programme works to ensure the schools have in place the appropriate procedures to monitor, identify and respond to attendance, participation and retention issues. One key potential crisis point for any vulnerable child is the move from primary to secondary school. The SCP works to implement transfer programmes to support young people making that transition.

The SCP is highly valuable but it does not seem to be highly valued. The scheme targets vulnerable children most at risk of falling out of education. I have spoken to SCP officers who deal with very difficult situations, such as children of families who cannot afford new shoes, or to purchase uniforms. Many children in this programme would not have breakfast before going to school, nor would they have a packed lunch in their bags or money to buy lunch. They do not have money for school books in many cases. Many deal with difficult circumstances at home. It is therefore vital that these children are given every support to stay in education. The scheme has been cut by approximately 33% since 2008. There are concerns about a further 6.5% cut this September. I ask that any cuts due to be implemented this coming school year be halted until the current programme review of the SCP has been completed. An answer I received to a parliamentary question put in May to the previous Minister for Children and Youth Affairs stated:

It is anticipated that the review will assist in identifying the reforms necessary to consolidate the programme on a sustainable footing for the future and ensure that available funds are targeted to those services which provide the greatest contribution to educational outcomes for pupils at risk of educational disadvantage.

My concern and that of SCP officers is that this review will further reduce the role of the SCP without putting in place any kind of replacement scheme. Will the Minister urgently examine the potential reductions in funding for the SCP before the summer ends with a view to putting a halt to any cut due for the upcoming school year? The review is taking place and it is only fair that no further cuts hit the scheme before it is finalised.

I thank my constituency colleague for raising this important issue.

The school completion programme, SCP, aims to retain young people in the formal education system to completion of senior cycle and to generally improve their school attendance, participation and their retention in education. The SCP is a targeted intervention, aimed at those school communities which are identified through the Department of Education and Skills's DEIS action plan for educational inclusion. The programme involves 124 locally managed projects and related initiatives which operate across 470 primary and 224 post-primary schools. It provides targeted supports to some 36,000 children and young people who may be at risk of educational disadvantage.

The projects within the SCP are each managed and directed by a local management committee, which includes representatives of schools, parents, and other education stakeholders in the locality. The programme's project model approach gives local communities the autonomy to devise innovative approaches to address the needs of young people most at risk of early school leaving. Typically, projects offer homework clubs; breakfast clubs; mentoring programmes; learning support; social and personal development programmes to young people; and out of school supports, including music, art and sports and a range of activities during holiday periods.

As with all major spending programmes, the SCP budget was subject to examination under the terms of the 2011 comprehensive review of expenditure, CRE. This process identified a requirement for savings of 6.5% per annum across the programme over the period 2012 to 2014. In 2014, an allocation of €24.756 million has been provided for the programme.

Since its establishment, the Child and Family Agency has operational responsibility for the SCP, including the allocation of funds to projects within the programme. The process involves local projects developing annual school retention plans with detailed service proposals for the forthcoming school year and the determination of the allocations to be provided on that basis and having regard to the CRE savings requirements. I have been advised that proposals have yet to be formulated by the agency for the funding for SCP projects in the coming 2014-2015 academic year. As an initial step the agency invited all SCP projects to commence planning for the next cycle of the programme within the available funding parameters. The agency has commenced the detailed process of evaluating and approving the 2014-15 school retention plans for individual projects.

It anticipates that local projects will be notified of the outcome of the process and of their allocations for the 2014-15 year in advance of the start of the new school year. The agency will continue to work closely with local management committees, schools and local school completion programme co-ordinators to assist projects through the process. The potential for any changes in the funding allocated to this programme in future years is a matter to be considered in the Estimates and the budgetary process, having regard to the resources available to the Government.

The Deputy may be aware that a review of the school completion programme has commenced. The review is an important initiative in the planning of the future development of the school completion programme. The objectives of the review are to identify best practice in the provision of support to children and young people to assist their retention in school, to clarify roles and responsibilities in the programme and to build on the valuable learning and experience acquired to date. It is anticipated that the review will assist in identifying the reforms necessary to consolidate the programme on a sustainable footing for the future and to ensure available funds are targeted to those services which provide the greatest contribution to educational outcomes for children and young people at risk of educational disadvantage. It is envisaged that the review will be completed during the 2014-15 academic year.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Labour Party Deputies have fought hard to protect funding and support for schools participating in the DEIS programme. When cuts were announced in previous budgets, we successfully fought to have them reversed. The Minister was at the Cabinet table at that time and was party to such positive outcomes. The cuts to the school completion programme represent an under-the-radar cut to schools involved in the DEIS programme and, crucially, to DEIS pupils. We need to see these cuts halted and ultimately reversed. There is an economic recovery under way. It is slow but it is happening. People will want to see that recovery being reflected in their pockets, but it will also need to be measured in other ways, for example by reference to the manner in which we protect and support vulnerable people in our society and help those who have been let down by this country's passive system of social inclusion, education and welfare. These are very important measures from the perspective of the Labour Party.

The school completion programme is an important scheme that provides real help for children who need it. If we protect and support it now, our young people and by extension our communities will benefit from it into the future. Given that a review of the programme is under way, would it not be prudent to await the outcome and the recommendations coming from that process before the further cuts proposed for September 2014 are made? That is the essential point of today's debate. It is not an expensive scheme, but it has an invaluable impact on vulnerable children in terms of keeping them in education and ultimately offering them a more secure path in life. I believe the resources for this scheme should be ring-fenced. I am willing to argue that point with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if the Minister feels there is value in so doing and that it would assist him in his own efforts.

I thank the Deputy for his expressions of support for this important programme. We know that any money invested in children yields the biggest return, regardless of whether it is spent in health, in education or on an important educational scheme like this one. This programme is aimed at the most vulnerable people, including those likely to leave education before they have had an opportunity to benefit fully from it. The review is being overseen by a steering committee involving officials from the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Education and Skills and the Child and Family Agency. The Minister for Education and Skills was with us a few minutes ago. The review is being carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute following a procurement process that was managed by the agency. Rather than cutting any services, the review will look at areas where moneys can be saved and efficiencies can be put in place. Obviously, we have to be wise to the fact that there have been some reductions already. I will of course discuss this matter with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister, Deputy Howlin.

Road Safety

Ba mhaith liom sa chéad áit mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le hoifig an Cheann Comhairle as ucht cead a thabhairt dom an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a phlé sa Teach inniu. I welcome the opportunity to speak. I appreciate the permission I have been given by the office of the Ceann Comhairle to raise this issue. I would like to congratulate the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, on his promotion to the Cabinet and, more importantly, on his appointment as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, which means he has responsibility for road safety. I acknowledge the efforts of the Minister's predecessors in that Department - the Ministers, Deputy Varadkar and Kelly, both of whom helped me when I raised on the floor of the Dáil on numerous occasions the issue of the N71 route in west Cork . I appreciate their assistance. I would also like to wish the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, every good luck in his new role. I look forward to working with him.

While this is an old chestnut, it is very important to me and to the people I represent. During the boom years when the so-called Celtic tiger was flowing, the people of west Cork were always amazed to find that they did not seem to exist when decisions were being made on infrastructural projects like schools building and road development. Thankfully, this Government has addressed much of the decline in the schools building area. I am extremely grateful for the substantial school building programme that has taken place, even in these times of very limited finances. However, we have made no progress with the National Roads Authority on the N71. When I was the chair of the western committee of Cork County Council, I led a delegation that met representatives of the authority almost ten years ago. The last time money was spent on the N71 was in 2003, when a 1 km bypass was built around Skibbereen. Although some moneys have been spent on maintenance, etc., nothing serious or worthy of note has been done in the 11 years since then.

We have a wonderful product in west Cork. I know the Minister is familiar with the area. Like many Members of the House who like to come to west Cork, he will have enjoyed the product we have down there. We are very proud of what we have to offer. Unfortunately, the N71 access route presents huge challenges, particularly at this time of the year. I say that to provide some background. A number of accidents have taken place at a particular junction and an adjoining stretch of the N71, which is no more than 500 m long. Unfortunately, there have been some extremely tragic fatalities at this location. Most recently, a young girl was fatally injured in a tragic accident at this spot. When such fatalities happen, we are all reminded that we have a duty which goes above and beyond politics and money. It is literally an issue of life and death. There have been four incidents along this 500 m stretch of roadway already this year. There were seven serious incidents involving the fire brigade and some fatalities last year. In 2012,12 official incidents were recorded along this 500 m stretch.

The figures are there. The National Roads Authority is well aware of the issue. As public representatives, we want to raise this issue and we have a responsibility to do so. I plead with the Minister, who is responding to his first Topical Issue since he took up this office in recent days, to approach the National Roads Authority and ask it to make direct and proactive contact with Cork County Council. This is a matter of life and death. I am not exaggerating any of the facts, although I wish I was. Too many tragedies have taken place on the tiny stretch of road that needs to be addressed. I will not go into the engineering details of the road on the floor of the Dáil other than to say that two bends need to be removed. I would like the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to ask the National Roads Authority to take a proactive approach. He should also ask Cork County Council to address this issue immediately, irrespective of the demands on its funds and its time. The Minister should be then in a position to confirm to me whether this is a priority for the National Roads Authority.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and for his kind comments on my appointment. I am aware that he has been working on and raising this issue for a very long period of time. I understand completely the importance that attaches to the improvement of this route, not only for safety reasons but also because it plays an important role for the Deputy's constituency and the broader country. In light of his involvement in local government and his membership of this House, the Deputy will be aware that the various figures involved in this area have different levels of responsibility. As Minister, I have responsibility for road network funding and policy. The National Roads Authority is responsible for the planning, design and implementation of individual projects. The local authorities deal with all matters relating to traffic management.

I am aware that tragedies, losses of life and injuries have occurred on or near the location to which the Deputy is referring.

As I am sure the Deputy is aware, the National Roads Authority undertakes the ranking of our roads on a periodic basis with regard to safety concerns and examines collision data to assess the safety of the area and the road. I understand work on this road was undertaken last year at Bohonagh, which is east of the section of road to which the Deputy refers.

The Deputy began and ended his contribution by asking whether I would make contact with the National Roads Authority to ask for a further update on this matter and to determine whether further remedial and safety work should be prioritised for this section of the road. I confirm that I will do that. I appreciate why this is a concern for him, his constituents and the communities who use the road. I will contact the National Roads Authority and ensure that a report and an update is furnished to the Deputy about a matter he has been campaigning on and raising for some time.

I appreciate the Minister's response and the willingness he is showing towards this project. I look forward to working with him. My plea is twofold: the bigger issue of the upgrade of the N71 and the need for political prioritisation. I debated that on the floor of the House with some of the Minister's predecessors in the Department at ministerial level. As politicians, we have an obligation to prioritise issues. We ensure there is provision for collecting the water charges and taxes associated with that, therefore, we must have a say in where the money is spent, and I am determined to see that money come to west Cork. It is long overdue. I do not know what the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government had against west Cork and why, in times of plenty, it decided not to invest a cent in upgrading the N71. Those days are gone. I cannot do anything about that but I can raise it today and I assure the Minister I will be constant in my calls to get funding for the N71 through the NRA, and I would appreciate the support of his good office.

I will make two points about this stretch of road. As the Minister pointed out, the NRA did some remedial works last year at Bohonagh, in Rosscarbery. Unfortunately, that moves the problem further west because if two bends are taken out and the road widened, motorists approach the next bend faster. That is the problem, and it is the result of years of neglect and lack of investment in the N71. It has to be addressed in the macro sense but in the short term we must deal with remedial works on the approach to Rosscarbery. Rosscarbery is a beautiful village-town, which is very popular. The locals know the stretch of road and, thankfully, there have not been many accidents involving locals but it is a very popular tourist area and people will not be familiar with it.

There is a request on the Minister's desk for a deputation from Cork County Council led by my colleague, Councillor Noel O'Donovan, in west Cork to lobby for funding for this project. Such is the depth of anxiety among the people locally to get this issue addressed a farmer has offered to donate his lands, which is an extraordinary gesture. The story was carried in the local newspapers recently. I would not expect any farmer to donate lands but he has offered to donate the land at that stretch of road free of charge to the NRA. That is an indication of the depth of feeling among the local people. It would be remiss of the NRA not to accept that serious offer and be proactive on this issue. I appreciate the Minister's offer to deal with it and look forward to getting a report on it.

I will respond to the two points the Deputy made about the road itself and the particular section of road to which he referred. Regarding the road itself, I am now engaging in reviewing our capital spending plans, in other words, the money we will spend on roads and other projects for the coming years. There are many priorities and issues that need to be addressed in that regard. The Deputy has long raised the issue of what has happened to the N71, therefore I will take into account the point he made about the broader road and what needs to be looked at, while appreciating that this will be done in the midst of having to make choices with regard to how and where we spend money available for infrastructure. I heard the Deputy clearly about the money needing to be spent in that area.

On the second point about safety, I will be contacting the National Roads Authority to update it on this debate and ask that it reverts to me, and to the Deputy, with an update on what has happened and whether safety work should be prioritised at the location, and the ranking process to which I referred earlier. I will ensure the Deputy is made fully aware of that. I will ensure also that the National Roads Authority is aware of the extraordinary offer from the farmer in the Deputy's community, which indicates to me how seriously the matter is being taken by the people he represents. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter and with regard to the safety matter, I will ensure he is furnished with a report on foot of this debate.

Foreign Conflicts

There is growing outrage across the world at the escalating death toll in Gaza. Gaza, with a population of about 1.8 million Palestinians, is essentially an open air prison. It is a community of people who are dispossessed, moved away from their homeland for decades. They have had to endure that profound injustice but, once again, they are under onslaught. Over 200 people have been killed in recent days, over 80% of whom were civilian women and children. All of us have seen the horrific images coming in every day and almost every hour. I could tell the Minister many stories but the worst has to be the entire family of the Gaza police chief, 19 people, wiped out.

This is another onslaught by the Israeli state that appears to go unchallenged. I want to know what the Minister, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and our Government have done to challenge the Israeli state on its repeated onslaught against the Palestinian people. It is deeply regrettable that rockets are being fired in the other direction but we should be sensible about that. Israel has one of the biggest armies in the world. It has a navy, an air force, nuclear weapons and missile defence systems. It is on a different scale from those in Hamas and other groups who have been launching rockets made within their own territories. This is not a real conflict. It is a genocide against a people.

What will the Minister do about this issue? Will he call in the Israeli ambassador and represent the view of the Irish people once and for all that this rogue state, which is engaged in repeated acts of terrorism, should be confronted once and for all?

I too stand in solidarity with the peoples of Palestine and Gaza and express a public condemnation of the ferocious and unwarranted massacre being perpetrated against those people by the Israeli state. I echo the points made by Deputy Mac Lochlainn. The world is looking on in horror and is shocked at the under-represented voice of the Palestinian people.

I condemn in some sense the coverage by our national broadcaster, which has tried to portray this conflict as a fight among equals or some sort of civil war when it is genocide. It is like the world heavyweight championship boxer taking on a newborn baby. That is the parallel in terms of the forces at play here. There has been 1,500 attacks on Gaza in the past ten days, 1,500 tonnes of explosives with the majority of casualties being among civilians but we must step back from that. This is not a recent phenomenon, despite the recent escalation. The reality is that the Israeli offensive has been ongoing for some considerable time with the detention of Palestinians at an unacceptable level and an intrusion in their daily lives.

A week or two ago, we had the privilege of meeting here a former member of the Israeli Defence Forces and member of Breaking the Silence who saw, from his own experiences inside the Israeli army, the propaganda that is taught to the Israeli people about the role of the Israeli army. He was quite clear, as indeed that exhibition was, that the Israeli army is an army of occupation and that it is nothing to do with defence. It is an assault on people's living standards.

I want to know why the State has been so silent. I want an absolute condemnation from the Government of what is going on and a demand for the massacre and bombardment to cease. I want a condemnation of Obama, Hollande and Cameron who have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Israeli state. It is small wonder when they pump in billions of euro, a majority of which is given back to their own arms industry. I want the Minister to let us know what he will do about that and illegal Israeli settlements on the ground in Gaza and Palestine.

I wish the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, all the best in his new portfolio. No doubt we will have plenty of battles here.

To date, more than 200 Palestinians, mostly civilians including women and children, have been killed. In contrast, there has been one fatality on the Israeli side. I do not understand how the Government has stayed so silent. More than 300,000 Palestinians have been asked to move or have been displaced in preparation for an imminent attack. What is happening right now amounts to a massacre, not a war. We should all be concerned.

Israel claims that it has the right to self-defence, but an occupying power does not have the right to defence. It has an obligation and a duty to protect the civilians under its occupation. Even if it fails to meet that duty, it must abide by humanitarian law and the principles of distinction, proportionality and necessity. It has not abided by any of these.

What is happening in Gaza amounts to war crimes. It is a repeat of what happened in 2008, 2009 and 2012. We will see this repeated unless Israel is held to account under international humanitarian law and international criminal law. We need responsible governments to introduce sanctions in order to work towards stopping these massacres and to address the root causes of these flare-ups, which is the structural violence of occupation, apartheid and settler colonialism.

Hamas and other Palestinian leaders are suspicious of the Middle East envoy, Mr. Tony Blair, acting as the link between Israel and Egypt. Blair is clearly a defender of Israel's interests and in the interest of peace, the Government should advocate at European level for the removal of Blair, who should be tried for war crimes for his disgraceful involvement in the Iraq war.

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated, "No international pressure will prevent us from acting with all power", claiming to have recently had good conversations with leaders, including US President Obama and EU Heads of Government. Will Ireland also be complicit? Despite that the United Nations top human rights official has called for an investigation into Israeli air strikes in Gaza on the grounds that the targeting of Palestinian homes resulting in a high death toll among civilians, particularly children, violates international law, is there any chance the Government would take a neutral position and highlight how disgraceful the Israeli behaviour is?

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. The current large-scale violence in and around Gaza was sparked by the dreadful murders of four young people in June and July, but quickly escalated, and has taken on a terrible life of its own. An estimated 1,260 rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv and west Jerusalem, and at the nuclear reactor at Dimona. Israel, in response, has carried out some 1,750 air strikes on Gaza. These are stated to be aimed at missile launchers and other targets associated with Hamas and other militant groups. However, as is always the case, it seems the resultant casualties, now estimated at approximately 205 dead in Gaza, include large numbers of civilians.

Israel has stated that it seeks what it describes as "quiet for quiet", that is, a resumption of the truce which has largely held since November 2012. The attitude of Hamas is less clear, but its military wing seems uninterested for the moment in any form of ceasefire. It may be that, having been weakened in a number of ways in recent months, it is seeking to reassert its standing in a military confrontation with Israel.

It is, however, civilians - women, children and men - especially of Gaza but also of Israel, who suffer the cost of these events. We have all seen with horror the reports of civilians killed, residents evacuating their homes and civilians running for shelters. I share entirely the views expressed by Deputies Wallace, Clare Daly and Mac Lochlainn, and by many members of the public, that this is utterly unacceptable.

Our position is clear. This violence, and its cost to civilians, is not acceptable. On taking office I issued a statement on Monday calling for an end to firing by both sides and a restoration of the truce. All Israelis and all Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security without a constant threat of violence. My predecessor, who also made a similar statement on behalf of the Government last week, spoke directly to the Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors on Thursday last, and asked them to convey urgently to their authorities our considerable concerns about the situation and our call for restraint, an urgent de-escalation of the crisis, full respect for international humanitarian law and a restoration of the ceasefire. I am glad of the opportunity of this debate to restate the position of the Government quite clearly.

I was encouraged by the proposal on the part of the Egyptian Government for a ceasefire to come into effect yesterday, and by the acceptance of this proposal by Israel, which then halted its military operations for a number of hours. Regrettably, missile attacks from Gaza into Israel did not cease, and attacks in both directions are now continuing. There is no indication yet that Hamas is disposed to accept a ceasefire. I hope, none the less, that the Egyptian Government will persevere and that it will be possible to achieve a ceasefire soon.

The High Representative, Baroness Catherine Ashton, has made similar calls on behalf of the European Union, as have many of my EU colleagues. The EU Heads of State and Government, at their meeting today, are expected to issue a statement restating those calls. The Foreign Affairs Council next week, which I will attend, will also address the crisis in Gaza and will hopefully have an opportunity to consider the longer-term implications for the peace process of recent developments on the ground and an appropriate EU response.

We are, of necessity, focused on achieving an end to the current wave of attacks, but the Government has consistently stressed that until the continuing blockade of Gaza is brought to an end, these cycles of violence are always going to recur. This is a matter to which we will return. I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I am keeping a close eye on the situation. I regard what is happening as utterly unacceptable.

The Minister will be aware that a few years ago the European Union, in an important report, heavily condemned Israel for the continued settlements in the West Bank. Essentially, the 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza are in an open-air prison. The Palestinian people in the West Bank are occupied. There are between 1 million and 2 million Palestinian refugees based in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, dispossessed from their homes. This is the profound injustice.

Israel has ignored repeated Security Council resolutions over the years. Only the veto of the United States protects it. When will the international community say that this is a nonsense about a war between Israel and Hamas? This is an utter nonsense. This is no war. This is no fair fight. This is an oppressive bully that has held millions of Palestinians as hostages for all of these decades and that repeatedly is not confronted about its actions.

I thank Deputy Mac Lochlainn.

Because it is not confronted, Israel feels it can do again what it has done before - bombard entire packed residential areas with rockets coming from naval vessels, tanks and bases throughout Israel.

I thank Deputy Mac Lochlainn.

This is an affront to international humanity and democracy. We need to call it what it is and call in the Israeli ambassador and state that the Irish people deplore the actions of his state in defiance of the international community, deplore the oppression that his state continually puts upon the Palestinian people and demand that Israel engages in talks with the Palestinian representatives, that is, Fatah and Hamas, which democratically represent their people, and, once and for all, to respect international opinion.

I thank Deputy Mac Lochlainn.

When that happens, we will have justice for the Palestinian people.

Go raibh maith agat. I have to call-----

I am glad the Minister stated at the end-----

Sorry, Deputy-----

-----that the blockade of Gaza is the issue here because those people are desperate and have no hope, and what can one do but fight back in those circumstances.

I thank Deputy Mac Lochlainn.

It is tragic, it is unfortunate, but what can they do.

I am sorry. I must call Deputy Clare Daly.

Will the Minister and his European colleagues stand up to Israel, confront this historical injustice and defend the rights of the Palestinian people for once and for all?

I too wish the Minister well in his new post but his response has been wholly inadequate in the context of the unfolding crisis in Gaza. The idea that the rockets that have been launched could justify what the Minister deemed to be Israel’s response is well short of the mark. We need to be clear about this. What is being fired from Gaza is well off the mark, not hitting home and low-key compared to the firepower coming across from the other side. The evidence of that is in the body count. There is nothing on the Israeli side while there is a massive civilian loss on the side of the Palestinian people.

The point we are trying to make is that Ireland is a neutral country in the EU. The majority of EU countries bend the knee in slavish adherence to the United States and its colleagues in Israel for their own economic interests. We can be a beacon against that and be the voice of reasoned citizens across Europe declaring this should not continue. We need to do much more.

I agree with the point about the Israeli ambassador but we need to lead the way with an economic embargo of the settlements and the undermining of all illegal Israeli activity which is behind much of the present conflict.

Unfortunately, the US and Egypt are happy to see Hamas take a beating. On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US was concerned about escalating tensions. On Tuesday he said, "I cannot condemn strongly enough the actions of Hamas". The Minister spoke about both sides behaving themselves. If France invaded Liechtenstein, killed 200 of its inhabitants while only one French person was killed, would we be asking them to behave and make up? No, we would be throwing anything we could at France. What is happening in Gaza is outrageous.

Everyone knows Hamas’s demands are not ridiculous. It wants the blockade ended, the re-release of 50 prisoners who were recently re-arrested in exchange for an Israeli soldier and the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. If the US continues to defend the indefensible, Israel will continue to behave abysmally. That is no reason why the Irish Government should behave abysmally. Let us call a spade a spade. We need to be seen as a neutral country.

I recognise that causalities are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side. I agree with Deputy Mac Lochlainn that it is not credible or possible, however, to address this issue as if only one side were engaged in attacks, something some others have suggested this afternoon. We recognise, as we must, that firing is going on in both directions and that both sides need to stop.

Having spoken directly with the Egyptian foreign Minister over the weekend, I was pleased his initial proposal elicited a positive response from the Israeli Government and there was, for a time yesterday, in effect a ceasefire on the part of the Israelis. Unfortunately, however, this was rebuffed by Hamas.

Hamas was not even consulted on that initiative.

I am anxious to assure the House, in particular the Deputies who raised this matter, that I will be happy to convey their views directly to the Israeli ambassador. I am most anxious that diplomatic efforts continue to bring about a ceasefire. I will be attending the Foreign Affairs Council early next week where I will be happy to convey the views of the Government and the House to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton. I hope those who are suffering on both sides will find some solace from a ceasefire.

In spite of the terror and fighting, the border crossings into Gaza from Israel have remained open. There are deliveries of food and fuel into Gaza while electricity continues to be supplied from Israel, although, as Deputy Mac Lochlainn will be aware, two of the power lines have been cut by missiles from Gaza. This has added to the difficult situation.

I assure the House that the Government is not silent on this matter but will be even-handed and is most anxious to bring about a ceasefire to this dreadful situation.