Topical Issue Debate

Northern Ireland Issues

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this very important matter for discussion. Yesterday's report by the PSNI and MI5 on paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland contained serious findings that have profound repercussions for the island. Its basic conclusion that the Provisional IRA army council directs both the IRA and Sinn Féin strategy and that its members are engaged in serious criminality, particularly around the Border, is a direct threat to democracy on this island. The IRA has not gone away and it has not left the stage. Instead, the report states, it is writing the entire script. I refer also to the report's findings on other paramilitary groups. It states "All the main paramilitary groups operating during the period of the Troubles remain in existence: this includes the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Red Hand Commando (RHC), Ulster Defence Association (UDA), Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA)". It is absolutely horrendous that these paramilitary groups remain in existence on our island 17 years after the endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement by the overwhelming majority of the people on all of this island. North and South, we are left with a party that is actively controlled and directed by an armed criminal group. The nexus of money, intelligence gathering and community control is part of a poisonous political project.

I understand that the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, has extracted more than €28 million in ill-gotten gains from more than 50 IRA members since the ceasefire, as mentioned in the House today. A number of court cases are ongoing as CAB delves into a dark financial empire worth an estimated €500 million that generates €70 million per annum. This is a criminal conspiracy founded on racketeering, fuel laundering, cigarette smuggling and other illicit activities. Its direction and objective are political control. Its legacy is murder and fear stalking the Border. We know its calling cards, for example, the brutal murder of Paul Quinn, who had every bone in his body smashed by the IRA before a twisted code of omerta and community intimidation silenced his screams from ever being heard in the justice system. That bloody violence and grim control is the conspiracy's hallmark. Paramilitarism in any community and from whatever source can no longer be ignored or indulged. Paramilitarism manipulating and controlling a political party is nothing short of a direct threat to our democracy and the hard-earned and tested institutions of this State.

It is imperative that we renew and revitalise the hope and energy of the Good Friday Agreement. We are all aware of the major effort made by various Governments, organisations and parties to bring the Agreement about. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade should consider whether a fresh mandate for the Independent Monitoring Commission, IMC, is needed to keep paramilitarism under check until it withers away from the communities that it is sucking dry. We need fresh resources for the Garda to confront the rampant criminality in the Border region. In particular, I reiterate my calls for a cross-Border agency to get to grips with the challenge. Last March, I introduced legislation in the House regarding the establishment of a cross-Border agency, the remit of which would be to deal with this criminality.

Fianna Fáil believes in the Good Friday Agreement and its great potential for all of the island. We believe that we can work peacefully and openly towards reunifying this historic island. The spectre of armed gangs calling the shots in political parties and orchestrating a criminal empire is a fundamental threat to that ideal.

On behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I thank the Deputy for raising this important and pressing issue. The Minister regrets that he cannot be present for this debate but, as the House will understand, he is in Belfast attending the roundtable talks that are addressing the challenges posed by the continuing impact and legacy of paramilitarism.

The Minister agrees with the Deputy that the assessment of various paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland by the British Government, as well as the Garda Commissioner's assessment of the status and profile of the Provisional IRA, both of which were published yesterday, make for sobering reading. The assessments raise issues that are of grave concern, issues such as the existence of illegal organisations and command structures, access to weaponry and widespread criminality. Every Deputy would agree that these have no place in our democracy. They never did.

The Taoiseach made the Government's position clear when he spoke in Cambridge last month. He stated that we needed clear lines, not blurred lines, between constitutional politics and criminality and that there could be no shared platforms or strategies, no shady grey areas between right and wrong. He made it clear that, 21 years after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires and ten years after decommissioning and the IRA announcement of a cessation of paramilitary activity, it was past time that paramilitarism should carry any capacity for threat.

It is important to note that the assessments conclude that these paramilitary organisations no longer represent a terrorist threat and that a threat is only posed by dissident groups that are the enemies of peace in Northern Ireland. The assessments none the less present a complex and challenging profile of the unacceptable residual activities of various groups in Northern Ireland that are damaging to communities and must be addressed. The issue of associated criminality and the involvement of those linked with paramilitary groups in organised crime is highlighted by the assessments. The Garda and the PSNI will continue working closely together to combat criminality in all its forms on both sides of the Border.

The British assessment and that of the Garda Commissioner underscore the critical importance of the ongoing talks process in Northern Ireland. A key element of these talks, in addition to the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, is to address the impact and legacy of paramilitarism. It is hoped that complementary assessments will provide fresh momentum to the talks process.

The political reaction to the assessments has been calm and measured. The Northern Ireland parties have maturely acknowledged the challenges and seem intent on addressing them. The stance taken by the First Minister and the fact that the DUP has resumed its seats in the Northern Ireland Executive are to be particularly welcomed.

Twenty-one years after the first paramilitary ceasefires, the transition to a fully normalised society in Northern Ireland must be progressed. Therefore, the Government continues to encourage all parties to seize the opportunity of the talks and to redouble their efforts to bring an end to the remaining blight of paramilitarism in communities and agree outcomes that provide a lasting peace and political stability in Northern Ireland. This is nothing more than what the people of this island deserve. For his part, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to engage with all of the parties in Northern Ireland in order to address these issues and preserve the peace and stability that has been so hard won.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I wish the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and all participants in the Belfast talks every success in dealing with difficult issues that must be addressed.

I will cite parts of the Garda Síochána report to the Minister for Justice and Equality. It states: "It was never the position of the IMC - nor has it been the position of An Garda Síochána - that PIRA had disbanded and, accordingly, ceased to exist." It also states:

However, separately from the activities of dissident groups, there is clear evidence that a significant number of persons who have been associated with PIRA remain criminally active, particularly in organised crime, and continue to associate together.

Elsewhere, it reads: "Like other persons involved in organised crime, some have access to weaponry." These statements in the Garda's report must be a source of concern for us all.

Many people on this island put a major effort into bringing about the Good Friday Agreement. Those of us who were privileged to campaign for its acceptance by the people in May 1998 were overjoyed that, in this State alone, more than 94% of those who voted endorsed it. That was a significant figure. Similarly, well in excess of 70% of those who voted in Northern Ireland endorsed the Agreement. We all recall the major block of Unionist opinion that campaigned against the Agreement and the lukewarm campaign, if it could be called that, on the part of some people who deemed themselves republicans. The people spoke, and the mandate that everyone on this island has is to work the Good Friday Agreement.

Major risks are posed when paramilitary organisations exist and weaponry is available to some paramilitaries, thugs, murderers and other criminals. People must face up to these questions. Smuggling, counterfeiting and cross-Border crime must be tackled in a determined and comprehensive manner. I welcomed the Taoiseach's indication to my party leader, Deputy Martin, this morning that he would give consideration to my proposal on a cross-Border agency that had a focus on tackling these issues.

I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, can bring that issue to the attention of his colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, to raise in the talks also.

As a next step to be taken urgently, we need politicians from all sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland to start being honest about the ongoing presence and role of paramilitaries. Paramilitaries from both traditions continue to exist. They must not be tolerated. Illegal groups must be gone for good on this island. Illegal activity must be faced down. The political system must face down paramilitarism and criminality. We have to see the potential of the Good Friday Agreement being realised for the benefit of all the people on this island.

On behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I thank the Deputy for what I believe has been a very useful debate. It has served to highlight the very worrying issue of the continuing impact and legacy of paramilitarism and to underscore the continuing efforts of this Government, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to address this issue as part of the ongoing round-table talks in Northern Ireland.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, together with the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, is in Belfast today and tomorrow to continue working with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the parties to reach a successful outcome to the current talks. This should include not only agreement on a way forward to tackle the impact and legacy of paramilitarism, but also agreement on the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.

It is hoped that the British assessment, together with the Garda assessment, will provide fresh momentum to the current talks. The focus of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to be on ensuing an outcome to the talks that protects the Good Friday Agreement and the power-sharing institutions. He remains hopeful that with committed collective engagement by the parties and the support of both Governments, there can be a successful outcome to the talks in the next few weeks that agrees a way forward on the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and tackles, once and for all, the legacy of paramilitarism.

Hospital Services

In 2011, promises were made by other politicians that the accident and emergency unit in Roscommon would remain open. Certain events happened and the Mallow report stated accident and emergency units such as those in Mallow and in Roscommon were unsafe. There was a junior hospital doctor crisis, and the consultants in Roscommon hospital wrote a letter stating they could not stand over the safety of the patients in that hospital. There was a vote on a motion tabled by the Sinn Féin party. The motion stated all accident and emergency units in the country should be retained and allowed to remain open. There were 3,000 people outside, mostly from my county. There was very heated, emotive commentary and people wanted me to resign. At the time, I did not stand by the vested interests and the ill-informed political pressure groups but by the people of Roscommon and Leitrim. I gave a strong commitment to secure significant investment for Roscommon hospital. The €8 million investment in the endoscopy unit is part of the €20 million investment earmarked for the hospital. The other flagships are a rehabilitation unit and a hospice care centre.

The 14,000 sq. ft. endoscopy unit is set to become a diagnostic centre for the whole western region. It will facilitate a range of scope procedures for patients, including colonoscopy. It is also hoped the service will be widened to offer bronchoscopy, cystoscopy and range of other scope services. This investment ensures the number of patients being treated in Roscommon will continue to increase. When the unit is open, the hospital will be able to perform three times as many endoscopy procedures. The construction of this major development endorses my public commitment to securing the long-term future of Roscommon County Hospital.

As the only Government Deputy in the constituency, I have exercised my influence at the highest level of government to ensure significant investment in the hospital. Since 2011, I have attended more than 100 meetings, at every level, to ensure the hospital's long-term future. Evidence shows clearly that the Government and I have worked and will continue to work hard to make Roscommon hospital a leading example for all small hospitals around the country. Along with the endoscopy development, the €8 million rehabilitation unit is a very exciting development for the hospital. We will see the construction of a 20-bed, single-room inpatient ward, with integrated therapy spaces, on a greenfield site adjacent to the hospital.

Geographically, Roscommon hospital is ideally located for capital developments. I warmly welcome the development of the 12,000 sq. ft. palliative care centre, which will have not only an eight-bed inpatient centre but also a palliative day-care service, a family support service and a bereavement service. It will serve as a base from which the existing community palliative home care team will operate.

We must not forget that the air ambulance has played a key role in providing critical air support options. It has saved dozens of lives in my county and many hundreds in the past two years. I am delighted it has been made permanent. I was the politician who set up that initiative and the one who helped deliver it with the two Ministers at the time. Any other politicians or vested interests who claimed an interest in this are simply not telling the truth.

With endoscopy services and other services, Roscommon hospital is safer and busier. This is because a high volume of lower-complexity cases have moved to it. People said four years ago that lives would be lost. Not one life has been lost because of the downgrading of Roscommon accident and emergency unit. The only casualty of this has been my political career as a Deputy for Roscommon and Leitrim. If that is a sacrifice that must be made, I am very happy to make it.

The endoscopy unit is ready. It has been passed on from the builders to the HSE or the hospital group. I want to know when the staff will be allocated for this much-needed facility. The people of Roscommon and the hospital management team are waiting on the staff allocation.

The Deputy can be justifiably proud of the contribution he has made in terms of what Roscommon hospital now provides. It is quite incredible. I refer to the transition from what was perceived to be an acute hospital to a different type of service, which sometimes serves communities better.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address the House on this important issue. An allocation of €5.5 million was provided for the building of a new endoscopy unit at Roscommon hospital. The new facility will increase the capacity of the hospital from 16 endoscopy procedures per day to 30 procedures per day, or 6,000 per annum. This new endoscopy unit will provide a significant addition to what is already an impressive range of services at the hospital, including extended day surgery, selected acute medicine, a large range of diagnostic services, specialist rehabilitation medicine and palliative care. More important, it will support the work of the hospital as an approved centre for colorectal screening under the governance of the National Cancer Screening Service.

The endoscopy service at Roscommon hospital is accredited by the joint accreditation group and maintains the highest possible standards of care for its patients. These patient-centred goals are best described by the endoscopy global rating scale, which endeavours to maintain standards in clinical quality, patient experience, workforce and training. These standards contribute significantly to the comfort and dignity afforded to the patient, the timeliness of the procedure, the quality of the procedure and the speed and accuracy of communication with the patient and the referring doctor. Work commenced on the new endoscopy unit at Roscommon hospital last year and I am assured that the construction has progressed well and is on target for completion and commissioning. Funding and staff requirements, including additional nurses and health care assistants, for the new facility have been considered in the context of the 2016 Estimates process and will be addressed as part of the 2016 HSE service plan discussions, which are currently under way.

It is anticipated that the new endoscopy unit at Roscommon hospital will open on a phased basis in 2016, marking a new chapter in the hospital's proud history of providing high-quality care to the people of Roscommon.

The development of this new facility is proof that, despite the pressures and challenges facing our health system - no one would know them better than Deputy Feighan, who raised the issue - this Government is determined to move forward, improve what we are doing and deliver the best possible outcomes for patients.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I am very anxious that we will find some way to allocate these staff immediately. I know that takes time, but this issue must be addressed. The Save Roscommon Hospital group needs to consider allocating the staff immediately, because that will indicate clear recognition of what is happening.

I did not know whether to laugh or smile when some of my political colleagues started to complain that because the hospital is so busy, there is not enough parking and they want something done about it. This is the hospital that was supposed to be closed, and now, before this €20 million investment and so on, the hospital is busier than ever.

The consultants and management in the hospital are also supportive of the changes and the delivery of the types of service the Minister mentioned. Two of the consultants have gone on public record to confirm that the hospital is safer and busier. Where are the members of the national media who parked outside our hospital for three or four years interviewing everybody who said that people would die and the proposed closure was awful? I have not seen anyone from RTE come down to my hospital. I have invited them down but they said they would call in when the Minister comes to open the endoscopy unit. I am looking forward to seeing them come down with their cameras, because I am sick and tired listening to the nonsense that the national and local media have spoken in Roscommon for the past four years.

I want to put on the record now that Roscommon hospital is safer, bigger and busier than it was in 2011. Over the past four years it has been said that people will die, but not one person has died. Fifty or 100 lives have been saved, and the only casualty has been Frank Feighan's political career, because the public service and the national media did not do a service to the people of our county. They did not tell the truth when it should have been told. I ask them again to please go back on what they said over the past four years and correct people in terms of whether they were right or wrong. That is all I ask.

I reaffirm not just what the Deputy said but the fact that the staffing requirements for the Roscommon endoscopy unit are being considered as we speak. Twelve nurses, three administrative staff and four health care assistants will be needed. The revenue cost will be €998,000 - almost €1,000,000 - and the costs to facilitate the opening of the unit in 2016 will be an additional €500,000. The Deputy was right in his original figure.

The situation is becoming easier with regard to recruitment. We do not have a surplus yet, but the situation is improving in terms of our ability to recruit. This time last year it would have been a different story because it would have been much more difficult, but this year it is becoming easier. We are still short, but nevertheless we have managed, in Roscommon in particular. I salute Deputy Feighan's tenacity. We have made significant progress.

Social and Affordable Housing Provision

This is a proposition from the Irish League of Credit Unions that has been with the Minister, Deputy Kelly, since before the budget on 29 September. It proposes to invest in a State-owned financial vehicle which would on-lend to approved housing bodies to fund the development of social housing. The key benefit arising for the credit union movement from this proposition is that it would enable the movement to put a significant portion of the members' funds of €8.5 billion into social housing. If I were the Minister and I had heard that on 29 September, I would have been on to the Irish League of Credit Unions immediately to invite its members to my Department to discuss how we would do this. One billion euro would build nearly 7,000 homes. Seven billion euro would build 45,000 homes in a short period if that money were invested immediately. We are supposed to be in a housing crisis. The Minister has called it a humanitarian crisis, yet for over three weeks, and with no announcement in the budget, there has been the possibility that credit unions would fund or in some way assist the Government in regard to social housing.

The credit unions said they got an acknowledgement from the Minister, Deputy Kelly, on 2 October. They sent the proposition to the Minister of State present, Deputy Coffey, on 2 October, who said he would review it and would like to meet with them. It is phenomenal to think that this proposition from the credit union movement, which has the funds - particularly in view of the Minister's statement that this was part of his housing policy, when he said he would be looking for private funding, including from the credit unions - has been sitting on his desk for the past three and a half weeks, and that the credit unions have not even been contacted.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue because it is very important. The credit unions have been established since the 1960s and there are more than 354 credit unions across the country. Fewer credit unions were baled out during the financial crisis than banks. Currently, the credit unions have €8.5 billion on deposit with the banks, which they are not allowed to lend out under Government policy. That is providing liquidity for the banks but giving a very low return to the credit unions and their members.

When the housing strategy was launched, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, stated that the funding of the housing programme would require the development of innovative funding mechanisms that do not increase the general Government debt. On his desk is an innovative funding mechanism from the credit union movement representing millions of people across the country with funds that they are ready, willing and able to invest in order to achieve a return for their members.

The credit unions have said they could invest up to €2 billion in a special purpose vehicle that could lend money on to local authorities or approved housing bodies, whichever the State would require. That would go a long way towards helping to solve the housing crisis. It would also provide the credit unions and their members with a better return on their investments, and would ultimately assist people who are already members of credit unions and ordinary citizens across the country. That would lead to an easing of the crisis, which I believe has developed through a lack of Government policy. It is a deliberate crisis rather than a crisis that happened because of something over which we have no control.

This proposition is part of the solution. It is a matter that should be addressed urgently in the Department. I urge the Minister to get back in contact with the Irish League of Credit Unions, engage in that dialogue and make this happen very quickly.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter in the Dáil, and I thank both Deputies for raising it. I am happy to make a statement to the Dáil. I agree that we need to look at how the credit union movement can be facilitated in providing financial investment into social housing. I particularly acknowledge the willingness and eagerness of credit unions to do so. As we all know, credit unions play a vital role in the social and economic infrastructure of this State. The credit union movement has 2.89 million members and over €13 billion in assets.

The Deputies are right. Recently, I received a detailed proposal from the Irish League of Credit Unions setting out a means by which funding could be provided to approved housing bodies by credit unions for the development of social housing. The proposal is comprehensive and contains some progressive and imaginative ideas. It is currently being examined in my Department, and I look forward to further engagement with the Irish League of Credit Unions on the issues addressed in its submission.

When the Government launched the Social Housing Strategy 2020 less than a year ago, we made clear that the State should have a central and significant role in the provision of social housing. We also made clear that we need to look at new ways of funding social housing. While we are currently witnessing significantly increased levels of State investment in social housing, the scale of the challenge we face is also substantial.

As the strategy acknowledges, the Government is committed to putting in place mechanisms that are capable of raising additional finance in a sustainable manner and which can be used to drive, plan and co-ordinate the provision of new social housing projects. The strategy includes a commitment to commence work on a financial vehicle to be known as the strategic housing fund whose purpose is to raise funding for the social housing sector. Work on the development of this new funding model is under way in my Department. This work is being progressed under the oversight of a group known as the finance work stream. This comprises of a range of key stakeholders, including the Housing Finance Agency, the National Development Finance Agency and the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. The aim of this work is to deliver a new funding source for social housing. The intention is that this new source of funding will enable approved housing bodies to deliver more housing from scarce Exchequer resources. In simple terms we are looking to facilitate investment in social housing that does not impact on the general government balance.

Arising from the opportunity offered by the strategy, a range of developers, investors, financiers and others expressed interest in being involved in the provision of social housing. A protocol was put in place in March of this year under the auspices of the finance work stream to facilitate individuals and entities seeking to engage with the State to provide investment for the delivery of social housing. A single point of contact for submitting proposals was established. The social housing proposals clearing house group operates through my Department under the oversight of the finance work stream. To date, 24 different proposals have been received and 20 of the proposers have presented their ideas to the group. The clearing house group is in the process of concluding its work and bringing forward further recommendations.

The submission from the Irish League of Credit Unions is in addition to these other proposals. It is a timely intervention that sets out how the Irish credit union movement could create a dedicated funding vehicle to provide finance for social housing in line with the aims set out in the social housing strategy. Two possible models are proposed. The first would provide for investment to be made in a State-owned financial vehicle which would then lend to approved housing bodies to fund the development of social housing. The second model sets out a scheme whereby credit unions would invest and then lend directly to the approved housing bodies. It is envisaged that the investment provided in this way would not impact on the general Government balance. This point needs to be tested and examined in greater detail, a process currently being led by my Department.

From the Government's point of view, the fact the credit union movement is willing actively to seek a role in financing the delivery of social housing is welcome. We need to use every available resource and funding mechanism to provide housing in areas that require it most and we need to do so as quickly as possible. I therefore welcome the opportunity to debate the matter publicly and I look forward to further engagement with the Irish League of Credit Unions on its submission.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. This is the first time we have seen these proposals and strategies and reference to the clearing house group. We are open to a real and genuine discussion rather than simply eight minutes during Topical Issue matters today. I would welcome it if the Minister of State brought all these proposals to the Dáil and contacted the Irish League of Credit Unions quickly. Changes will have to be made in respect of registering, and the credit union guidance notes would have to be amended to allow this to happen. We need to move quickly on the matter.

I meet one or two families every week who face eviction through no fault of their own and subsequently find themselves homeless. If they thought we were sitting on money like this rather than urgently using it to build social housing, we would have to be ashamed of ourselves and those in the Government would have to be ashamed of themselves too. I would welcome a proper debate on all the proposals the Minister of State has put forward. That should include exactly how much social housing we can build and how quickly we can build the units in all the areas where they are needed.

On first reading, the response of the Minister of State looks rather promising in respect of the proposal from the credit unions. When we examine it a little more closely, however, it is somewhat concerning, in particular in the use of language. The social housing clearing house group smacks to me of the banks and the clearing house work that banks undertake. There is a concerning sentence in the reply of the Minister of State, " The clearing house group is in the process of concluding its work and bringing forward further recommendations." The Minister of State goes on to say that the credit union proposals are outside any of the proposals that have gone to the clearing house group. To me, that does not augur well for the future of the proposals. Will the credit unions get to present to the clearing house group before the group concludes its work? Will their proposals be given serious consideration?

Deputies need not be so cynical. I assure the Deputies that the Government is treating this as a matter of major priority in terms of finding all the resources and finance we can make available to invest in social housing. We have put on the public record our strong commitment. We have underpinned it by budgetary commitments and the rolling out of an ambitious social housing strategy. In fact, local authorities and approved housing bodies are struggling to keep up with it, such is the demand that exists and such are the resources being provided. We have provided more than 300 staff for local authorities to assist in the provision. The challenge lies in the delivery of social housing. The finance, ambition, strategy and objectives are very clear.

The clearing house group has nothing to do with the banks. It is made up of officials in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government supported by officials from the Housing Finance Agency, as well as the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and other Departments. Its function is to stress test the proposals to ensure the taxpayer gets the best value for money in respect of the submissions. Some of these submissions will not fly at all, as it were. They will not represent good value for money for the taxpayer, but others possibly will. The job of the clearing house group is to analyse and stress test them, after which the proposals with potential will be progressed as soon as possible.

I note some of the specific points raised by the Deputies. The Irish League of Credit Unions in its submission has made a specific request for regulatory change . It has requested that the Central Bank amend its 2006 guidance note for investments to allow credit unions to loan money to approved housing bodies for property schemes. I am mindful of the independence of the Central Bank and Deputies should be as well. Officials in my Department are in contact with their colleagues in the Department of Finance to consider the potential regulatory and legislation changes that are needed as well as the implications. This is not something that can be done overnight.

However, it is something we are willing to engage with to try to progress as soon as possible.

I welcome that the Irish League of Credit Unions recently made a substantial proposal to my Department. We will work with the league to try to advance this as soon as possible. For the sake of the taxpayer, however, any proposals must be correctly analysed, stress tested and proofed to ensure good and practical delivery in respect of what they set out to do.

Post Office Network

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy White, to the Chamber. It is good have the opportunity to discuss in the short term the question of the closure of a post office in a particular area and, in the macro sense, to look at the broad policy issues relating to the future of our post office service.

As we all know, post offices have played a vital role in the quality of life in urban and rural areas. They are an integral part of the community. Thankfully, they are still in operation throughout Ireland.

The programme for Government includes a clear statement to the effect that the post office network will be maintained and the Government would seek to enhance the service and add new uses and new areas of business. Of course, as a semi-State company An Post can conduct its own business and look for contracts from the public and private sectors. All this, along with State support, has resulted in only a relatively small number of closures since the Government came to office compared with the large number closed under the previous Administration - at least seven or eight times the figure under the current Administration. I would be delighted if the Minister would provide me with the up-to-date figures on what has been closed during the four and half years we have been in government as well as what was closed in a similar period under the previous Administration.

The particular issue we are addressing is the Cabra post office on Fassaugh Road, Dublin. Tonight, the postmaster will hold a public meeting. He has put up posters throughout the Cabra area calling on people to come along and campaign against the closure of his post office.

I am not aware that the post office will be closed or whether there are any plans to close it, but I would like to hear from the Minister its exact status and whether people have any cause for concern, given that the postmaster, in the public notices he has put up the length and breadth of Cabra, has clearly indicated there is such cause. What proposals, if any, are in place for the closure of post offices between now and spring 2016 when the election is due?

I welcome the opportunity to clarify for the Deputy the position regarding post offices in the Cabra area of Dublin 7. The operation of the post office network, including the opening or closing of post offices, is a day-to-day operational matter for the board and management of An Post and not one in which I have a function. I had inquiries made with An Post and I have been informed that the company does not have plans to close any post office in the Cabra area. I hope that addresses and allays the Deputy's concerns.

It is clear from the interest shown by the Deputy, and indeed by all sides of the House on previous occasions, that the post office network and its future is one that resonates with us all. It is true to say that the postal sector is undergoing systemic change, with migration towards electronic communications resulting in significant core mail volume decline year on year. Undoubtedly, this trend places pressures on An Post and its staff. However, it is Government policy that An Post remains a strong and viable company which is in a position to provide a high-quality postal service.

In January of this year, I appointed Bobby Kerr to chair the post office network business development group to ensure the continued viability of the nationwide network of customer-focused post offices. The post office network plays an important role in serving the needs of business and domestic customers alike, and the Government is committed to its retention and wants to see it thrive.

A public consultation on the initial report of the post office network business development group took place over the summer. A total of 16 responses were received. These responses, along with the initial report, were published on my Department's website. The consultation responses are assisting the business development group in identifying opportunities that can benefit the post office network and will inform the final report of the group which I expect to receive shortly.

To maintain the relevance of the post office network for future generations, it is inevitable that changes will need to be made to continue to attract customers to use the services provided by post offices in the face of increasing change in consumer behaviour and trends. It is clear that there is a strong public desire to maintain the nationwide network of post offices and I look forward to the findings of the final report of the business development group to assist in this regard.

I thank the Minister for his assurances on the Cabra post offices. I am delighted to hear that neither is threatened with closure. I will convey that information to the people concerned.

I also asked the Minister whether he had any information on the number of post offices closed during the current Administration compared with the numbers closed during the previous Administration. My information is that there have been 24 closures between 2011 and 2015 and in the four-year period of the previous Administration there were 198 closures, which is a large number. Funnily enough, I do not recollect any complaints or campaign by postmasters and postmistresses during the previous Administration. All of a sudden, they seem to have a new wind in their sails and have begun to campaign, even though hardly any post offices were closed. I imagine those that closed did so as a result of what one could call natural wastage, whereby postmasters or postmistresses retired. There have been virtually no closures during this Administration.

I am delighted we have a strong post office service for the future. It is very important to our country. I am delighted that new business is forthcoming and that there is a commitment by Departments to continue their business with post offices. Unfortunately, the mail service is changing very rapidly and the volume of that particular service is declining, but I understand strong alternative services are coming on board and an increase in business is taking place as a result.

I am delighted with what the Minister had to say about the future of post offices in Cabra. Perhaps he would clarify the overall picture on post office closures over recent years.

I do not have the detailed figures in front of me, but from memory the figures the Deputy quoted sound correct. We can clarify the specifics and confirm that for the Dáil record at some point, if the Deputy would like me to do so.

I listened carefully to the points he raised and, as I mentioned, the closure or opening of post offices is a matter for An Post and not the Minister. I do not make those decisions; rather, they are made by An Post. Notwithstanding that, I hope, on the basis of the inquiries I have undertaken for the Deputy, that he has been reassured regarding post offices in the Cabra area.

I look forward with great interest to the final report of Bobby Kerr, which I expect to receive in the coming weeks. It will point the way towards a future for the post office network, but one that is aligned with the realities of modern life and the manner in which people conduct their communications, in which business life is carried out and the fact that people's patterns, including retail behaviour, have changed. From that point of view, Bobby Kerr is doing us all a great service in terms of this report. He has consulted very widely and it is a great opportunity for us all to point to a positive future for the post office network.