Topical Issue Debate

Humanitarian Aid Provision

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for allowing this Topical Issue to be put on the agenda. I thank the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, for being here to deal with it. As he knows, the civil war in Syria has been raging for five years. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions of people have been displaced.

As usual in war, the weakest and most vulnerable people pay the heaviest price. In particular, children have paid a heavy toll. The vast numbers of children who have been killed and maimed in Syria are truly shocking. This conflict probably rivals anything in the history of human conflict in its viciousness and the extraordinary losses incurred by civilian populations.

As the Minister is aware, Aleppo has become probably the most tragic of all flashpoints in the Syrian civil war. Absolute horror is unfolding at present. Approximately 250,000 people are trapped in Aleppo. The world cannot simply ignore the plight of these people.

The intervention of Russia over a year ago has worsened the situation rather than improved it. I believe Russia has a role to play in helping to improve the situation. Unfortunately, however, it seems that in recent weeks Russia has contributed to some horrific instances and possible war crimes instead. No matter how limited our clout on the international scene, we cannot, as a country, simply stand by and do nothing. I welcome the efforts of the Minister to call in the Russian ambassador to discuss the situation. We need to take a zero-tolerance approach in future to countries that carry out such atrocities, no matter where they are. I was in contact with the Minister in 2014 when Gaza was being bombarded by Israel. In future we need to consider the possible expulsion of diplomats from countries involved in such atrocities to send a signal to the world of our protestations. Our power to change things may be limited but we need to do what we can. No matter who the perpetrators are, we need to adopt a zero-tolerance approach in future.

There is a practical side to the humanitarian situation at present. What are we doing with regard to aid to people in and around Syria to try to alleviate the shocking situation? Of course, there are always demands but is there scope for us to do more on this front? Perhaps this is something the Minister can address. Obviously, the root cause is what needs to be addressed above all else. We could be here for a long time talking about the root cause and going back over the events of the past decade and before. In any event, with regard to the immediate situation, can we do more when it comes to aid?

I thank Deputy Griffin for raising this issue. As I have outlined in previous public statements, and as the Taoiseach stated in the House on Tuesday, as a nation we have been shocked and outraged at the appalling scenes of suffering from Aleppo that we have seen daily on our television screens and read in our newspapers. I thank the Deputy for giving me an opportunity to set out in greater detail the position and actions of the Government in response to the horrifying situation in Aleppo and across Syria.

The conflict in Syria began over popular unrest caused by the corruption, violence and lawlessness of the Assad regime. At its core, the conflict remains centred on this one question: can the Syrian people be free to choose their leaders or will the regime's persistent campaign of mass murder, torture and sexual violence subjugate millions of Syrians into accepting his continued reign of terror? From the outset, Ireland has been clear that we believe this is a crisis of political legitimacy and that only a political solution will be viable and sustainable. We are clear that this must be Syrian-owned and Syrian-led. We have also been consistent in condemning the pattern of systematic violence against civilians as part of which hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions more wounded or forced to flee violence and terrorism. We have called for the protection of all civilians from military force and terrorism and for the unimpeded provision of humanitarian assistance to populations in need as well as full accountability on behalf of the victims of crimes under international law.

It is clear from a wide range of reports that the Assad regime has been overwhelmingly responsible for the deaths of Syrians since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. The commission of inquiry established by the United Nations Human Rights Council has reported findings of evidence that the Assad regime may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of military force against the besieged population of Aleppo is a clear violation of international law. Ireland's concerns have been directly conveyed in the clearest terms to the Russian authorities at my direction.

On behalf of the Irish people, I urge Russia to use all its influence in Syria to end these inhumane actions against a defenceless civilian population. Ireland has repeatedly called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court. The suffering of the besieged population in Aleppo underlines the urgency and importance of ensuring accountability for those responsible for these unacceptable actions. The attacks have rightly appalled people in Ireland and across the globe. I acknowledge the important moral stand taken by Irish people in supporting NGOs working to assist the Syrian people as well as those taking a stance for peace, such as those who attended at the GPO last weekend.

Having set out my political approach as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I will now outline the position on aid. Members will be aware that the Government has placed considerable emphasis on doing what we can to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people through provision of humanitarian aid. Earlier today I announced my approval of €1.5 million for the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross inside Syria and €1 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East for Palestinian refugees affected by the Syria crisis. These actions, combined with our recent disbursement of €5 million to the Turkey refugee facility, bring our total contribution to the Syrian crisis to €62 million since 2012. By the end of this year, we will have provided €67 million for the relief of the Syrian people. I will be discussing the situation in Syria with my EU colleagues at the next EU Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg later this month. We will focus in particular on how to support the European Union humanitarian initiative on Aleppo.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I acknowledge the efforts made to provide relief and I welcome the increases in the recent allocations of funding. I imagine the Minister is already doing so, but I call on him to try to do whatever he can to optimise the amount he can make available given the seriousness of the situation. Unfortunately, throughout the world other similar cases are unfolding, but probably nothing is as horrific as what is happening in Syria.

I call on the Minister to try to keep this on the agenda of his colleagues in the European Union as much as he can. As a neutral country, Ireland should make our diplomats and our best people available for efforts to try to resolve the crisis. It seems that the military situation that has unfolded over the past five and a half years will not end soon. So many parties are involved and it is not straightforward or a black-and-white matter. Irish citizens want to know that we are doing our best no matter how limited our interventions can be. They want to know that we are doing what we can. Again, I thank the Minister for his efforts to date. I hope this can be kept high on the agenda.

The Dáil should take the opportunity to hold a broader discussion on the Syrian issue at the earliest possible date. All parties could contribute to a full debate over a longer period. Unfortunately, in the seven or eight minutes available, it is difficult to get into any detail or discuss the matter and the various complexities. In any event, I think it would be helpful to have a full Dáil debate.

I agree and I wish to assure the House, as the Taoiseach did on Tuesday in my presence, that I would be happy to facilitate Members. That is an issue for the Business Committee but I would be happy to comply and co-operate, as is always my priority.

I share the absolute revulsion and horror that so many Irish citizens have expressed at the events in Aleppo.

Reports of families sleeping together so that they can survive or die together in a bombing are indeed beyond imagining. Those who perpetrate such crimes against defenceless civilians must face justice.

This morning I had a lengthy discussion with Commissioner Stylianides about the EU's extensive provision of humanitarian relief for the Syrian people. The Commissioner has shown great leadership and the scale of the EU aid is enormous and is critically required. We also discussed the importance of addressing the root causes of migration, a topic I addressed in some detail in my recent address to the United Nations General Assembly. I echo the views of UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, that acts of violence on humanitarian convoys constitute war crimes. I support a credible, thorough and independent investigation to ensure that those accountable for these heinous acts will be held accountable.

The Syrian people who have recently settled in my town, Portlaoise, have recounted to me their terrible experiences in Syria, their fears for their families, friends, neighbours and for the country. I am heartened by the warm welcome they have received in my constituency so far from their beloved homeland.

I understand the deep frustrations which can motivate calls for dramatic action of the type Deputy Griffin has called for. There are many states around the world in respect of which Ireland has had serious concerns and disagreements. Our foreign policy has always been based above all on the resolution of conflict by dialogue. In diplomatic language expelling an ambassador or calling for his removal means that we are no longer interested at least for the moment in dialogue. Ambassadors exist to allow clear communication between governments and are more necessary in bad times than in good. The corollary would be to see the expulsion of our ambassador from Russia, which would diminish our presence in that vast country. Our embassies, as well as communicating our views to foreign governments give regular reports to me and my Government colleagues on international developments and offer protection and assistance to Irish citizens in need which occurs from time to time.

Consular Services Provision

Eanna Ó Cochláin is a 55 year old Corkman. He is a nurse and is married to a Filipino woman and was arrested at an airport in the Philippines in 2013. It was claimed that the reason for his arrest was the discovery of a small quantity of marijuana in a packet of cigarettes, which he credibly claims was planted on him. He was imprisoned and asked for money to prevent him from being sentenced. On the advice of the Irish consul, I understand he refused to pay. He was sentenced to 12 years in a Filipino prison. That is under appeal. He is on bail but his passport has been confiscated and he cannot leave the country. His life is in danger and he is in hiding.

That is understandable because more than 3,500 alleged drug dealers and addicts have been killed in the Philippines since 1 July by police operations and by ardent vigilante militias. The authoritarian populist president, Rodrigo Duterte, elected on 1 July, has stood over this campaign. Last week he said, "Hitler massacred three million Jews ... there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them." Mr. Ó Cochláin's life is in real danger and his family feels there has not been enough done by the Irish State and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to save and protect him. What steps are planned and will be taken?

Tá an Teachta Barry tar éis a mhíniú roinnt de na sonraí faoin cheist seo. Is ceist tromchúiseach é a bhaineann le saoránach Éireannach atá i mbaol. The details of what Mr. Ó Cochláin faces have been outlined. It is an extremely grave situation and would certainly have already been a grave situation at the turn of the year because of the condition of Filipino prisons and concerns about due process there. It has become, however, far more serious since the election of President Duterte, who has sanctioned and stood over a campaign of extrajudicial murder of people involved in the drug trade or people alleged to be involved in it, such as Mr. Ó Cochláin, and the President’s political opponents. His family and he are very concerned. He is in hiding, his passport confiscated. What support is being given to Mr. Ó Cochláin and his family by the consular service? I understand he is to meet the Singapore consul next week. The family has told me it is not satisfied with the service it has received.

Has the Government’s policy and attitude in this case, and to any Irish citizens facing such charges in that part of the world, changed due to the attitude of the current Government? Will the Minister outline whether the Government has succeeded in obtaining a meeting with the Government of the Philippines? I understand there has been a meeting with the ambassador in Dublin. Has there been a meeting in the Philippines or in Singapore with representatives of the Government rather than the ambassador?

I am very much aware of this difficult consular case in the Philippines and I and Department officials have been giving the matter priority attention for some time. The case, which has been ongoing since 2013, involves an Irish citizen, currently on bail, who is appealing against his conviction and 12-year prison sentence for possession of drugs. The individual concerned has consistently maintained his innocence in the matter. There is no doubt that the case has been further complicated by the domestic environment in the Philippines since July and the severe counter-drugs actions being pursued by President Duterte. The Irish Government, at political and official levels, regularly raises this case with senior representatives of the Government of the Philippines.

Department officials at headquarters in Dublin, at our embassy in Singapore, which is accredited to the Philippines, and our honorary consul in Manila have been engaged in this case for some time and have provided consular assistance to the citizen and his family. The case has also been raised formally with the ambassador of the Philippines to Ireland. I have personally raised my concerns about this case with senior Filipino Government contacts, most recently in New York in September. In that meeting last month with the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Government of the Philippines, I took the opportunity to emphasise my specific concerns about the case, including about the health and welfare of this Irish citizen.

For any Irish citizen subject to criminal proceedings abroad, Department officials will offer non-judgmental advice and any appropriate practical help that they can, irrespective of the alleged offence, and regardless of whether the individual is ultimately deemed to be innocent or guilty, is on remand or has already been sentenced by a court of law.

The Department’s priorities in cases of arrest or detention focus on ensuring that the Irish citizen involved is not discriminated against in any way on account of his nationality, and has access to appropriate legal representation and that the authorities in the country where he is detained fulfil their obligations in ensuring the citizen’s health and well-being. In this case, an initial priority was to seek to ensure that the individual had access to legal representation. To this end, he was provided with a list of local English-speaking lawyers. The Department also assisted the citizen by providing details of relevant medical care professionals at his request. It is the policy of my Department to raise promptly with the relevant local authorities concerns that detained Irish citizens may raise about their safety or treatment, including health concerns. In this case, Department officials made representations to the prison service and the foreign ministry in the Philippines regarding the treatment of the individual during his period of detention in 2013. Thereafter, our embassy in Singapore and our honorary consulate in Manila assisted with the bail order and conditions following the five-day period of detention. The Government, through our embassy in Singapore, raised with the authorities in Manila the concerns of the individual regarding the matter of the court case. I and the Department officials pressed the Filipino authorities to expedite the appeals process in this case on humanitarian grounds. I can assure the Deputies that the Filipino authorities are fully aware that I and the Department are following this case closely and that we are concerned about the individual's health and well-being. Department officials in Manila and Singapore will continue to maintain contact with this citizen and his family and will provide whatever further appropriate consular assistance they can in the circumstances.

On the Duterte regime, in another statement this President made recently he encouraged civilians to kill addicts, and he has said he will not prosecute police for extrajudicial executions. Eanna is on bail and in hiding. He is in the most horrible position imaginable. I believe his passport, which is the Minister's property, is missing. Have we demanded the return of the passport? What did the Secretary of Foreign Affairs say when we raised the points with him in September, and what are the plans to go higher up the chain in terms of the Filipino authorities?

The Minister stated that this case has been raised at numerous levels, but what has been the response from representatives of the Philippines Government? Also, the Minister made a number of references to the consular support. I understand Mr. Ó Cochláin's wife, Jho, is currently running out of money to support him. Has the embassy done anything to support him in terms of his maintenance, payment for court appearances and so on?

It has been well articulated by Deputy Barry and myself that there has been a change in circumstances in the Philippines with regard to its attitude towards drugs offences. Is the Minister confident that it is possible for Mr. Ó Cochláin to get a fair trial on a charge such as this one?

I assure the Deputies and the House that the Government remains most concerned about the well-being and health of this Irish citizen. We have made our concerns perfectly clear to senior Filipino officials on a number of occasions at face-to-face meetings, and we will continue to do so. The Deputies will appreciate that because of the separation of powers, the Philippines Government cannot interfere in ongoing judicial proceedings, nor can I interfere in the criminal justice system in any other country. However, I acknowledge this is a most difficult time for this individual and his family. I assure the Deputies that my officials and I will continue to treat this matter as a priority.

I want to deal with the passport issue mentioned. Both Deputies stated that the passport has been confiscated. I confirm that the passport is being held as one of the conditions of Mr. Ó Cochláin's bail. Obviously, the effect of that is that he is unable to return to Ireland. Following the release of the individual on bail, the embassy in Singapore issued him with a letter confirming his Irish citizenship as a form of identity. There is no doubt that the case has been further complicated, as the Deputies stated, by severe counter-drugs actions being pursued by the new government in the Philippines. I have relayed my concern and the concern of my Government to the Filipino authorities and I will continue to do so at every opportunity.

I want to make it clear to the House that my Department enjoys a very high reputation in terms of the exceptional levels of consular care we provide to Irish citizens abroad. My officials are known to go above and beyond what is considered the usual practice for a country in terms of consular care. They deal in a dedicated and sensitive way with a huge volume of consular cases, often in very challenging circumstances. Already this year we have dealt with over 1,500 cases.

In general, it is the Department's policy not to comment in detail publicly on individual consular cases. I ask the Deputies and Members of this House to respect that position and come to me directly if there are concerns about a particular Irish citizen.

School Funding

I appreciate the Office of the Ceann Comhairle giving me the opportunity to raise this subject. It concerns the urgent need for the Minister for Education and Skills to approve funding of €50,000 towards the replacement of windows in Bunscoil Lughaidh Naofa, Cloughvalley Upper, Carrickmacross, County Monaghan. This is an issue I have pursued with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, through written representations and also through parliamentary questions.

The school was built in 1985. The windows were installed at that time. They have not been replaced in the meantime and they are of very poor quality. They are aluminium single glazed windows, which are totally unsuitable and need to be replaced urgently. There is an urgent need to provide this funding as these windows must be replaced before winter, if at all possible. The poor condition of the windows causes serious problems in terms of the school trying to provide adequate heating for all the rooms. There are additional attendant costs also because of the poor quality of the windows. The school has also been subjected to vandalism, which also causes a heavy burden on the school.

I want to emphasise that, over the years, through the school's own fundraising efforts, necessary improvement works have been carried out to the school without any assistance from the Department. If one were to go back through the files of this school in the Department, one would recognise immediately that it has not been a burden on the Department with regard to drawing down funding for improvement works.

In the past six years alone, tarmacadam was laid in the playground at a cost of €22,000, the car park was extended twice, the walls of the school were insulated, the GP room was upgraded, white boards were provided in each classroom, the front doors were repaired and the fencing of the school grounds alone cost €56,000. Roof slates had to be replaced and windows replaced due to vandalism. Basic improvement works such as repainting was also carried out in the classrooms. All of those works were undertaken through the school's own fundraising efforts. Apart from those specific projects, there was ongoing maintenance work as well. On a number of occasions the school applied for the summer works scheme grant. Unfortunately, it was not successful.

I visited the school and met with the principal, Maeve Callan, and her staff. There is a great sense of community in the school. I am glad the Minister is present in the Chamber, having been a former school principal. Immediately on visiting the school, one was aware of the great community, atmosphere and huge interest of the principal and all her staff, both teaching and support staff, in the pupils attending the school. It has had an excellent board of management over the years, and successive parents' associations have been very beneficial also in terms of the ongoing work of the school. Numerous parents have contacted me in support of the request of the board of management to have this funding approved at the earliest possible date.

When I visited the school, along with one of the members of the parents' association, Rory McEvoy, whose children attend the school, the interest of the parents and indeed the wider school community was obvious to me in terms of trying to have these necessary improvement works undertaken. They would not be seeking funding from the Department were it not for the fact that they have raised so much funding over the years through their own efforts. Those efforts resulted in accommodation being upgraded and essential ongoing maintenance work being carried out. They believe, and I fully support their belief, it is time for the Department to approve this funding to allow those urgent repair works to be undertaken.

I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, who is unavailable. I thank Deputy Brendan Smith for raising the matter, as it provides me with the opportunity to outline the current position relating to the application made by Bunscoil Lughaidh Naofa, Carrickmacross, for funding under the summer works scheme 2016-2017. I understand the Minister, Deputy Bruton, previously clarified the position relating to this application to the Deputy through written correspondence in June and August, and more recently in the House yesterday, 5 October, through Parliamentary Question No. 123. However, I will restate the position for the purpose of the debate.

As the Deputy will be aware, a total of €80 million was allocated for the summer works scheme announced last November. The scheme will apply on a multi-annual basis in 2016 and 2017 and will be funded from the Department's multi-annual capital budget. This funding package is part of the Government's continued commitment to fund improvement and upgrading works in existing school buildings throughout the country. The scheme is designed to address necessary and immediate works and the onus is on school authorities to identify the most urgently required works to be funded from the summer works scheme.

Bunscoil Lughaidh Naofa applied for window replacement under the summer works scheme 2016-2017. Window replacement is classified as a category 7 project under the scheme. On 28 April 2016, the Department announced a €30 million investment for more than 197 primary and post-primary schools under the first round of the multi-annual summer works scheme 2016-2017 to undertake vital gas works and electrical upgrades. These works are classified as category 1 and category 2 projects, respectively, under the summer works scheme. Valid summer works applications from schools in respect of categories 3 to 10 that were not reached under round one approvals announced last April will, subject to the overall availability of funding, qualify to be assessed under future rounds of the scheme. The application made by Bunscoil Lughaidh Naofa is available to be considered in this context. If this arises, the terms and conditions of the scheme, as outlined in Circular 55/2015, which may be accessed on the Department’s website, will continue to apply when allocating funding to such projects.

In the meantime, the school may use its minor works grant, which all primary schools received last November, to carry out remedial works in full or on a phased basis as that grant permits if the school considers them to be a priority.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I ask her to pass on to her colleague in government, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, my repeated request that should capital funding become available within his Department between now and the end of the year, this is a project in respect of which any funding provided would be put to good use. As the Minister is aware, there can be delays in some capital projects at the end of a year and these provide the opportunity for a reallocation of funding to more minor works. In those instances, the money can be drawn down quickly and spent before the end of the year.

Bunscoil Lughaidh Naofa has a current enrolment of 282 pupils and has grown considerably since it opened 31 years ago in 1985. I again emphasise that apart from minor works grants, which by their nature entail small amounts of funding, no capital funding has been spent on the school during that time. The school has spent its own money. It has fund-raised and put the money to good use. The school has the full support of its board of management and successive parents' associations but now has reached a point where it is not in a position to fund-raise any more to carry out this necessary work. I emphasise that the principal, Ms Maeve Callan, her staff, the board of management and the parents' association are fearful of the heating costs that will arise for the school in the event of a severe winter. The capitation grant is lower than all Members would wish and there are pressures on schools but a severe winter would cause severe financial hardship for that school. I appeal to the Minister to pass on to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, the request I again make, namely, to have funding allocated before the end of this year to enable those much-needed improvement works to be undertaken at the earliest possible date. I assure the Minister that the school community in question will ensure that any State funding allocated to it will be put to good use.

I thank the Deputy for putting the case so forcefully and repeatedly. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position regarding the application for the window replacement. The approval of further categories of summer works applications will be considered in the context of the Department’s 2017 capital Estimates.

Job Losses

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this matter. It is with great sadness and regret that I must raise this issue on the floor of the Dáil, as the devastating news was confirmed yesterday for the workers and their families that significant job losses will be incurred in Longford. These are good, high-quality jobs. Cameron Willis established its Longford base in 1978 and from that time onwards, the relationship has been mutually beneficial. The company has benefitted from a loyal, committed and dedicated workforce which at its peak was responsible for a turnover of €150 million per annum. At its lowest point, turnover fell to €100 million with margins of 33%. It was a highly profitable company that did very well and needless to say, County Longford benefitted immensely from having a company of that magnitude located in Longford town.

The manner in which this was handled leaves much to be desired. Rumours were circulating for a number of weeks, which left staff members extremely anxious and concerned with regard to their future. I make the point that now that the news of 170 potential job losses has been confirmed, this is not simply a statistic. These are real families for whom there are real consequences leading up to Christmas. While 170 jobs may seem like a small number in the general scheme of things, it certainly is not small for a small county such as Longford. One should not think merely of the 170 jobs but also of the indirect employment consequences to which this will give rise.

Were the Minister or her officials made aware of this decision? If so, when were they made aware of it? Has the Minister sought a meeting with the relevant personnel from Cameron Willis? I note that in its press releases, the company refers to potential job losses. Has Enterprise Ireland met the senior management to ascertain whether State supports could be made available to try to reduce the number of job losses on the table? This is not a decision that can be blamed on the Government; it is a commercial decision I believe to be based on the cost of labour. I am of the view that the company is seeking to move to a cheaper economy. However, one must consider Ireland's own base. In terms of competitiveness, Ireland has dropped from being the ninth best country in which to do business in 2010 to the 17th best in 2016. Government is responsible for the lack of priority that has been given to promote regional development. I refer, in particular, to the previous Administration in this regard. Between 2011 and 2015, only two IDA Ireland site visits were made to Longford. The investment in the necessary infrastructure has been absolutely slashed and these job losses serve as a reminder that only three months ago, 87 jobs were lost in the region in Mullingar.

At a local level, the chairman of Longford County Council has called together the corporate policy group, the relevant stakeholders, Government bodies and Oireachtas Members and I invite the Minister, if she cannot come to the meeting at 1 o'clock on Monday next, to send a senior official from the Department to see what can be done.

At a broader level, we need to ascertain whether these jobs are gone. Is "potential" merely a sugar-coated word that the company is using in its press releases? If they are gone, how can we access the globalisation adjustment fund?

I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the establishment of a special task force of persons with relevant experience, captains of industry with a clear implementation plan and a timeline, something similar to what was established in Limerick in 2009 when Dell looked to relocate from Limerick to Poland. That is now necessary, not only for Longford but for the midland region that has been left behind over the past number of years.

I thank Deputy Troy for raising this issue. It has also been raised with me by Deputy Peter Burke and Senator Gabrielle McFadden.

I was very sorry to hear about the decision announced yesterday by Cameron Industries. These employees in Cameron Willis have played a key role in the company's success over recent years and it is distressing for them now to be losing their jobs. My thoughts are with the workers and their families at this difficult time.

Unfortunately global circumstances in the oil business have meant that orders for the products manufactured in the Longford factory have fallen dramatically. Therefore, it is solely global commercial pressures that have led to this decision. The company is shedding a significant number of jobs worldwide and it has significant excess capacity.

While manufacturing is expected to cease, it is heartening that 50 high-quality jobs will remain at the plant, on research and development projects and other specialist production functions. IDA Ireland, the enterprise agency working with Cameron Willis, will continue to work with the company. I have asked that the other relevant State bodies will work to ensure that the workers concerned will be assisted regarding entitlements and retraining opportunities.

The Deputy has raised the issue of possibly setting up a task force to deal with these redundancies. I do not favour such a course. The staff of the various development agencies will continue to pursue job creation projects as part of their daily work. It has been our experience in the past that when task forces were established in multiple locations following closures, this diluted the effectiveness of the various State bodies and meant they were diverted from their core day-to-day work. Having a multiplicity of new structures is not an effective or efficient mechanism. Experience has shown us that this is definitely the case.

The Government will strive to ensure that new investment and job creation projects will be pursued for Longford. This week's confirmation of the new Center Parcs holiday project in Ballymahon, County Longford, is a great boost for the county.

In the wider context, as a Government, we have put in place strategies for job creation that are starting to bear fruit. Unemployment has now come down to 8% nationally and while the rate in the midlands is slightly higher at 10.7%, that is a terrific improvement on the rate in that region of 19.6% in 2011.

The Government will continue to deliver on its commitments in the new regional action plans for jobs, which are a truly innovative mechanism to deliver job growth. The core objective of the plan is to support the creation of an extra 14,000 jobs across the region through the delivery of 119 collaborative actions focusing on increasing the number of entrepreneur start-ups, developing the capacity of existing enterprises, with further actions targeted at sectors of potential competitive advantage such as manufacturing, tourism, food and energy. I look forward to that process delivering for us and especially in bringing benefits to Longford.

I asked when was the Minister made aware of this. What level of engagement has she or her officials had with the company to ascertain whether or not these jobs are gone? They state "potential" job losses. It is in no one's interest that they camouflage the true reality of what is going on here. The minimum the staff deserve is openness and honesty from this company that they have worked so loyally for over the years.

Will the Minister make an application to the globalisation adjustment fund?

The Minister referred in her reply to a decrease in unemployment. That is to be welcomed, but my region's unemployment rate is still almost three percentage points higher than the national average. In fact, in the first quarter of 2016 we saw an increase in unemployment in this region and since then we have had two announcements of significant job losses of which I am aware: 87 job losses in Mullingar and this one of 170 job losses in Longford. This region has been left behind over the past number of years and the figures confirm this. The Government and its predecessor have focused on the greater Dublin area from which 51% of GDP comes.

Longford and the midlands is a fantastic place to look at relocating business, given its proximity to Dublin and the amenities there. One need not queue up overnight to gain access to schools and there is affordable housing in the area.

The Minister might look at two businesses. Abbott Diagnostics, located in Longford, is looking to expand because it is one of the most efficient diagnostic plants worldwide. The Minister referred to Center Parcs in her reply. When Mr. Martin Dalby was in Ballymahon this week, he was amazed at the efficiency with which the Longford local authority dealt with the company's planning application, the turnaround time and its pro-business attitude to that application.

We need a special task force for this area. We need to prioritise this area. I want to have published a plan with an implementation timeline setting out what this Government will do to bring about replacement jobs for this area.

Finally, can the Minister answer the question? Will she or her representative be present at the meeting in Longford County Council at 1 o'clock on Monday?

I will certainly see if somebody can go to Longford. We are announcing jobs in Limerick early that morning and I will see if I can get someone to go to that meeting.

Deputy Troy asked me when I heard. Actually, I got a voicemail from him. That was the first indication that I had of trouble in this company.

The Deputy mentioned Abbott Diagnostics and Center Parcs. I have had Center Parcs representatives in my office to ensure that we can hurry up this project and to remove any barriers, and a number of them were mentioned on Monday last in Longford and I will be working on that. I answered the task force question.

Deputy Troy also asked are these jobs gone. I believe they are. The falling price of oil on the global market has had an impact and Longford employees are victims of that. My understanding is they have cut significant numbers in Leeds and in other companies around the world that they own because they have overcapacity.

Unfortunately, they are investing in an eastern European plant.

Anyway, that is the case and that decision has been made.

I received a letter from Mr. Quigley, the regional officer of the Unite union, today to which I have replied. We will work hard together. It is unfair for the Deputy to say we are not doing anything. We have started the implementation of the regional action plans for jobs and they are working. The number unemployed is decreasing but I accept we cannot be complacent. There is a good deal of work still to be done. We are working with industry in the region, with the local authorities, the local enterprise offices, Enterprise Ireland and the IDA and we will continue to do that. I have met the Deputy at many of the functions held in counties Longford and Westmeath and I assure him that my focus is to deliver jobs in rural and regional Ireland.