Topical Issue Debate

School Accommodation Provision

I am glad the Minister is here to take this debate. The school in question is Rochestown Educate Together National School in Rochestown, County Cork. It is a fabulous school and under the leadership of Alan Sheehan and his team, the staff are doing a wonderful job in incredibly difficult circumstances. This school opened in 2013 and now had 208 pupils but is situated across a split campus. One part of the school is on the grounds of Douglas Hall soccer club in temporary accommodation and the other part is in Garryduff Sports Club, again in temporary accommodation. The split campus arrangement has presented real difficulties for parents, pupils and staff. Some families have to drop their children off at the two campuses. The classrooms are too small. The yard at Garryduff is extremely small. A room is being rented there for support teaching. There is no school hall for PE or assemblies and there is no staff toilet at the Douglas Hall campus. This is just a sample of the issues that arise on a day-to-day basis. It makes it an entirely unsatisfactory arrangement for staff and pupils alike.

What is the up-to-date position regarding the acquisition of the site for the permanent school building on Old Carrigaline Road in Douglas? We were told in December 2016 that a site had been identified and were told in January 2017 that there was agreement in principle. Since then, we have been told that it is at conveyancing stage. There has been no further information. There is a real lack of information and engagement from the Department. Coming up to the start of every school year, the school has been left to its own devices to try to sort out temporary accommodation. People are asking when the site will be bought and what the temporary accommodation arrangements will be like in September 2018 if, as expected, the permanent school building is not in place at that date.

Rochestown Educate Together National School has been open since 2013. Its opening was very welcome, as is the announcement of a site being established. This is a school in a rapidly growing and very urban area just outside Cork city. It met the desire for an education with an Educate Together ethos so it was a school that was very badly needed. Consequently, demand for places has been very high since the first year. There were 20 students in 2013 and there were 215 students in September so it is growing rapidly. However, there has been a rush to get accommodation sorted year after year almost without exception. This was initially on the grounds of the Douglas Hall soccer club and from 2016 onwards, on a second campus on the Garryduff Sports Centre site so the school is divided between two sets of prefabs on two sporting club sites in an area with very heavy traffic. As Deputy Michael McGrath outlined, there are gaps in terms of a staff room, special educational spaces and toilets and all those issues along with parents trying to travel back and forth between those two sites with their children, who could be split between the two campuses in an area with very heavy traffic, cause huge issues. There was a debate on other schools that faced similar issues before the recess. Indeed, this school has been going through this since 2013. With either temporary or permanent accommodation, it always seems to go right up to the wire or beyond it leaving the board of management to resolve it. We have been told it is at conveyancing stage. When does the Minister expect that the sale will be agreed and when will it be in a position to go to planning for the school?

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I know it is an issue of considerable concern because this school was opened in 2013 and now has enrolment of up to third class so, clearly, finding permanent accommodation for the school is a priority from the Department's point of view. There were attempts to find a site. We have been working through the memorandum of agreement with Cork County Council and one site was being pursued. The current site, which is deemed particularly suitable, is now the preferred the option. I think the Deputies know that efforts had been made to look for other sites before this one was settled upon. There was an agreement in principle in February 2017, as the Deputies acknowledged. The Department then requested draft contracts from the vendor, which was the first step. The site is not accessible and aspects of the design and delivery of the access road to the site needed to be discussed with the landowner. In the meantime, work has been ongoing on this.

On foot of these discussions, the vendor provided draft contracts in August 2017 and this enabled the Chief State Solicitor to commence the conveyancing process. That process has commenced and I am not in a position to say when it will be completed. The legal people will have to be satisfied that there has been due diligence and such. I assure the Deputies that there is no attempt to slow this and the Department assures me that while the site acquisition process is going on, it is not hindering the delivery of the permanent accommodation for the school as preliminary design work on the project has commenced. The design team has already had some engagement about that with officials in Cork County Council and will shortly be holding formal preplanning discussions with the council with a view to further advancing the project. The Department is acutely aware of the difficulties outlined by Deputy McGrath with the two campuses that parents are trying to deal with. I assure the Deputies that we will make every effort to conclude this and proceed to the next design stage to provide permanent accommodation.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He acknowledges that we are looking at another school year in 2018 and 2019 where the school will be in temporary accommodation. That will be the sixth year in some children's primary school lives in this school in temporary accommodation. I do not know how long it takes to purchase a site after the price has been agreed but will the Minister assure us that this is not because his budget for land or site acquisition has been exhausted? I welcome that preplanning discussions are going to commence, hopefully in parallel with the conclusion of the acquisition phase. It is possible, however, that until contracts are signed, this site could be lost. Someone else could come in with a higher bid at any stage because no contracts are signed. Where would that leave us if this site was lost? I ask the Minister to take a personal interest in this. Our objective is to get it over the line; that is what it is all about.

Will the Minister ensure that the plans for the next school year, from September 2018 onwards, are agreed well in advance? That would avoid a repeat of previous years when, as Deputy Ó Laoghaire said, school authorities were left to their own devices right up until the last minute. It is not fair on anyone. We need personal interest from the Minister and commitment to complete this both with regard to site acquisition and having proper planning and an agreement in place for temporary accommodation for the next school year which will unfortunately come around quickly.

I will address the matter of the school again. I want to emphasise that this seems to be a policy issue and that these matters always seem to go down to the wire. This school is split across Garyduff Sports Centre and Douglas Hall. The educate together secondary school is in Nagle. There are other schools in Carrigaline as well. Both of those schools go right up to the wire when trying to source things. There is still great uncertainty, even as the year progresses, as to what the situation will be next year. There is an admission that we are looking at temporary accommodation for 2018 to 2019 which is disappointing and concerning. It is not clear to me that either of the existing sites are capable of supporting any more prefabs or temporary accommodation. The question is whether we are looking at a third site or relocating some of the existing school to another site. Much of that is unclear and I am disappointed to know that we are in that situation. I understand that indications have been that it is still at the conveyancing stage but that it could take until the end of the year. If that is the case, it is very likely that another school year will be spent in temporary accommodation. I urge the Minister to examine the issue of temporary accommodation and how that is handled in the Department as a general rule on a national level. I ask the Minister to ensure that no effort is spared to ensure that this site for a rapidly growing school is secured by the Department to provide a permanent home for what can be a very successful and valuable school for the locality.

To reassure the Deputies, to be fair to everyone, a number of alternative sites had to be pursued. It was not an open and shut case of a site being available that could be pursued. This site became available. It is zoned for education purposes so I think that gives security. We are at an advanced stage in the process of conveyancing in that the work has been done and the vendor has submitted a contract which is with the Chief State Solicitor. No delay is being put in its way and no budgetary issue stands in the way of delivering this. I take the Deputies' points about temporary accommodation and how that will be provided for in 2018 to 2019. I do not think it is a question of finding a national strategy because every case is individual. We try to find sites and temporary accommodation while we find the permanent sites and build.

May I come in for a second?

It has been a just-in-time approach. We have had to build for 20,000 places each year and that has necessitated some new schools opening in temporary accommodation while acquisition, delivery and so on are handled.

There is an issue with the timescale.

It is not as if there is a magic formula for nailing down temporary accommodation that can be designed in Marlborough Street.

The point I am making is that, in any of the examples I have come across, planning applications are lodged too late and there are difficulties with county councils and boards of management are consequently struggling. The gap after the application is made is too tight.

I have seen in my area that there are problems with council applications for temporary accommodation. I take note of the points the two Deputies make and will bring that back to my Department and see if we can finalise plans early so that people have a sense of certainty. That can be easier said than done in individual sites. As the Deputy says, if the gap after the application for the site is tight, what do we do about temporary accommodation? I will bring that back to my officials and ask them to examine that in view of the fact that this is still at early design and planning stage.

Foreign Policy

Deputies Crowe, Ó Broin and Boyd Barrett have one minute each.

I raised the situation in Catalonia last week with the Minister of State with responsibility for EU affairs. I told her that in the build-up to this referendum, the unprecedented attacks on fundamental rights and civil and political rights are putting democracy in Catalonia at risk. Many of our worst fears were confirmed on Sunday. I agree with the Taoiseach's comments this afternoon that the scenes of brutality in Catalonia were horrific. Over 890 people were injured in this crackdown on democracy. Will the Minister of State join me in sending solidarity from this Chamber to those people and to wish them a speedy recovery? We know that the Spanish police used plastic bullets which the Catalan Government banned in 2014 after a campaign by victims who were maimed and blinded by these deadly weapons. We know the effect that they can have. One of the Minister of State's colleagues, the Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, requested that the Spanish ambassador to Ireland be called into Government Buildings to convey our horror at voters in any democracy being dragged from polling stations. Will the Minister of State do this and does he believe that the police response was proportionate, as suggested by the Spanish deputy Prime Minister?

I was in Barcelona and Catalonia over the weekend as a guest of the Catalan Government and was accredited by its electoral commission, participating in a delegation of approximately 40 members of European countries' parliaments observing the election. I witnessed first-hand many disturbing scenes that we saw on the news over the weekend and spoke to many people who had been hit with plastic bullets and been beaten with batons, including an 83 year old man who, after being treated for his wounds, went back to the polling station and waited another six or seven hours to vote. I welcome, as Deputy Crowe has, the Taoiseach's remarks condemning the violence but it concerns me that the Government says that the substance of the difficulties in Catalonia are an internal matter for the Spanish state and that therefore the Government cannot interfere. That was not the Government's position on human rights and civil liberties in Poland or Hungary recently, or indeed in Myanmar. The Government has a long history of speaking up and advocating about foreign governments' actions when it feels that they are inappropriate. Will the Minister of State support the call of the Catalan Government to invite or to secure the European Union to intervene and to provide mediation between the Catalan Government and people and the Spanish Government to resolve the difficulties in that part of Europe?

Condemning the violence, as the Taoiseach has done, is a start, but it is not acceptable for European Union leaders, including the Taoiseach, to refuse to condemn the violent suppression of the exercise of self-determination. They are condemning violence but not the decision to suppress a democratic vote. In fact, to some extent, there is a justification for talking about it being an internal Spanish matter to be dealt with under Spanish law. The UN charter and international law are crystal clear on the right to self-determination, but that right is being violently suppressed by the Spanish state, a European state. European leaders are not condemning it or saying the people of Catalonia have a right to vote and make their own decision on their political, social and cultural future.

I have listened carefully to the contributions made by the Deputies on the situation in Catalonia. I appreciate fully that their contributions reflect genuine concern and also, in the case of Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, informed by his presence in Catalonia over the weekend with other Irish elected representatives. The region is also a location I visit a couple of times each year. What has been said in the debate will be shared with Catalan and other Spanish contacts. In this way, a range of Irish opinions will be shared. This is something I welcome. As the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, said when she spoke on the topic recently, what happens in Spain is of great interest to their Irish friends in this House and the communities we represent across the country.

Upholding the constitution and the rule of law in all its aspects is a key underpinning of all modern democracies. Ireland respects the constitutional and territorial unity of Spain. The Government's position remains that the constitutional and political arrangements in Spain, as in any country of the European Union, are matters to be determined by its own citizens through its own institutions in keeping with the rule of law. Political developments in democracies take place within a legal framework. This is what protects the rights of all citizens. Respecting the rule of law and the limits it imposes is not a choice but an obligation. Differences of opinion should be contested robustly by public representatives and others and all parties should do so with full respect for the law and the rights of citizens. That is the foundation that underpins and protects modern, democratic societies.

I shared the dismay felt by many Irish people at the disturbing clashes and injuries sustained on Sunday in Catalonia. We know from our own experiences on this island, as well as from experiences elsewhere, of the particular responsibility borne by the authorities to balance law and order while respecting rights. Let me be clear: violence has no place in politics. This has always been the position of the Government. I echo the call from the European Commission to all relevant players to move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue. It is important that steps be taken to reduce tensions and reclaim the space where differing political views can be contested through national and regional democratic institutions with full respect always for the law and the rights of citizens. The events of Sunday last are the subject of extensive debate in Catalonia and across Spain. Everyone has a responsibility to reduce tensions. What we are saying in this Chamber mirrors many of the reflections national and regional representatives there, as well as broader society, are putting forward. We trust our Spanish friends to decide for themselves how to shape their future. As I stated, what happens in Spain matters very much to us. We encourage all of the parties involved to find ways to de-escalate tensions and build trust.

A referendum on independence is also a political issue, not solely a judicial one. The Spanish Government should respond to it through dialogue and negotiations, not by attacking voters and polling stations, a point on which there is agreement. The Catalan Government has requested mediation by the European Union on the issue. Does the Minister of State agree with that proposal and, more importantly, will the Government press the European Union to mediate on this important issue?

I have heard the statement repeatedly that this is an internal matter for Spain. What happened in Catalonia on Sunday is a matter of concern for everyone. I agree that Ireland is a friend of Spain and a friend tells someone when he or she is wrong. Make no mistake about it - what happened on Sunday was wrong. Red lines were crossed and the Minister of State needs to let the Spanish Government know this. What happened was unacceptable and should not be allowed to happen again. The Catalan people need to be allowed to find a democratic pathway to decide their own future.

The Minister of State's response was disappointing. He used the phrase "all relevant players ... move ... from confrontation." There has been no confrontation by the Catalan Government or people. If one watches all of the media coverage, what one will see is people trying to assert their rights peacefully and in a dignified way. Confrontation is certainly not how I would describe it as. They were attacks by one group on another.

There is a misunderstanding of how Catalan society has reached this point. For over a decade there have been attempts by successive Catalan Governments led by different political parties to find a different kind of constitutional arrangement within the Spanish state, either through greater devolution or now independence. The difficulty is that the Spanish Government is simply not open to dialogue. When one hears Mariano Rajoy's responses to the problems on the ground, the Spanish Government made its position very clear yesterday. What is needed is not a call for dialogue internally but international mediation and influence to be brought to bear, party to party, such as by the Minister of State's party, on the Popular Party in Spain to address the issue and crucially for the European Union to step in and mediate between the Catalan people and their representatives and the government in Spain. That is the role we want the Government in this jurisdiction to play.

I am also concerned by the response. The Minister of State said, "We trust our Spanish friends to decide for themselves how to shape their future." That is the problem. I do not trust Mariano Rajoy or the Spanish state that has a brutal history of suppressing the desire for self-determination of the people of Catalonia. We do not and should not trust them. What we saw on Saturday was a shocking, violent suppression of people who were acting peacefully and trying to do so in a democratic way. The Catalan Parliament made a democratic decision to hold a referendum and the people went out to try to cast their ballot papers and the Spanish state suppressed them violently. The European Union is always going on about its commitment to human rights. This is an elementary human right under international law for people to exercise the freedom to self-determination and the Spanish state is denying it. What is the Government going to state about this? What is the European Union going to state about it? If it states nothing, its claim to be concerned about democracy or human rights will be in tatters. Frankly, it has covered itself in shame in the last few days in failing to speak out more robustly about what the Spanish state is doing.

I again express my appreciation for the contributions of Members and their concerns about the situation in Catalonia. I reassure them that what is happening in Spain is also of great interest to the Government. Ireland enjoys an excellent relationship with Spain and has a great rapport with its people, including the thousands of Spanish schoolchildren who visit Ireland every year and in meeting Spanish tourists and business people and our contacts at political and governmental level. We will continue to work constructively with the Spanish Government to build bilateral and trade relations and pursue our common goals at EU and international level. In order to better understand our EU partner, we are monitoring developments in the country closely and will pay particular attention to any potential impact on Irish citizens. My Department is following developments closely and responding to the concerns of Irish citizens. Earlier this afternoon the Taoiseach spoke about the developments in Catalonia on Sunday. The Deputies are very much aware of what he said. We all were horrified by the violent incidents that we saw which involved state actors and unarmed and non-threatening civilians.

We feel, not least from our own experiences, that such actions are counterproductive and that political progress needs to be made through dialogue. The Governments supports a resolution to the current situation which is based upon democracy and the rule of law. I want to reiterate the Government's position that this must be determined by Spain and its own people, based on the rule of law and through that country's own institutions. It is through such democratic processes that all voices can be heard and a way forward can be found. None of us here today wants to see further violence or injuries such as those seen last Sunday. I welcome the fact that demonstrations that have taken place since then have been allowed to take place in a peaceful manner.

Primary Care Centres

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, for coming into the House to deal with this matter. I seek to raise the most urgent issue of the provision of a primary care centre in Finglas. This project was first approved in 2012. In July 2013, it was described by the then Minister of State at the Department of Health, former Deputy Alex White, as a "high priority" location. In February 2015, it was described by Deputy White's successor, Minister of State and former Deputy Kathleen Lynch, as "remaining a priority despite the planning setback", which I am sure the Minister of State will outline in his response today. Following that high profile planning setback from An Bord Pleanála, the lack of impetus and urgency on the part of the HSE to identify an alternative site has been staggering and appalling. Finglas, as the Minister of State will know well, is one of the most under served areas in the country in terms of general practitioners, GPs, and medical services generally. There is a dire need for the construction of a primary care centre in this part of the world.

In response to a question that I submitted in 2015, Dublin City Council revealed that it had proposed five alternative sites to the HSE. That was two and a half years ago but there has been no tangible progress. In 2017 I corresponded with the HSE regarding this matter, arising from a parliamentary question I had submitted. The response indicated that a site had been identified but that a decision from the landowners was awaited. A number of days later, my office received a letter from the landowners stating that they had informed the Department of Health and the HSE that they did not wish for the land to be used for a primary care centre. The landowners had informed the HSE of same some weeks before I received a contradictory answer from the HSE via my parliamentary question.

It is now October 2017 and it appears that we are no closer to a solution. I am hoping that the Minister of State can uses his considerable influence and clout to bring people together and pursue a solution. It seems that there has been a real problem of co-ordination between the HSE, the Department and Dublin City Council from the outset. I imagine that is how the erroneous information came to me via a parliamentary question. It seems that various people within the agencies are not talking to each other. It would be greatly appreciated if we could bring some urgency and impetus to this most important matter. I do not need to remind the Minister of State that this primary care centre was promised five years ago. It was intended to cover more than 15,000 families from St. Margaret's Road to Finglas south. Finglas south currently has not a single GP. It is quite clear that not only do the people of Finglas need this, they deserve it. If we can show our commitment to assisting communities like these by making the plans of the previous Government from 2012 a reality as soon as possible, that will be a job well done.

I thank Deputy Rock for raising the issue of the provision of a primary care centre in Finglas. Deputy Rock has a long track record in fighting for an improvement in the health services in the Finglas area in particular. Finglas has been identified as a high priority location for the development of a primary care centre. Plans for a HSE direct-build centre were approved in 2012 in the context of the HSE’s multi-annual capital plan. Following a review of a number of sites in the area, the HSE identified a Dublin City Council owned property on Mellowes Road in Finglas as the preferred site for the construction of the proposed new primary care centre. Subject to planning permission, the commercial terms for the sale were agreed with officials of Dublin City Council and approved by the HSE. The site on Mellows Road was selected because it was a good site. It was centrally located in the catchment area which it was intended to serve, had good accessibility and was well served by bus routes. It was a generous green field site that had future expansion capacity. There would be no impact on current services during the construction period and the location would complement the HSE day care centre on Kildonan Road. The site would facilitate the establishment of GP services in this area and local GPs had expressed significant interest, in discussion with the HSE, in being a part of the development at this specific location. As the Deputy will be aware, the granting of planning permission by Dublin City Council was appealed to An Bord Pleanála. An Bord Pleanála’s inspector also recommended that planning permission be granted, upholding the Dublin City Council decision. However, in February 2015, An Bord Pleanála took the unexpected decision not to grant planning permission for the Finglas primary care centre. We were extremely disappointed and shocked by this decision, as zoning was appropriate for the proposed development and use. The single reason given for the refusal by An Bord Pleanála was the loss of informal open space. Following the refusal by An Bord Pleanála, HSE estates in conjunction with local primary care services teams have reviewed a number of alternative sites for a new primary care centre in Finglas. A number of potential sites were identified by Dublin City Council but none were considered to be ideal.

The HSE was made aware of another site in Finglas which would be very suitable for a primary care centre and which would potentially become available for the HSE to purchase. The HSE is still in discussions with the owners of the site and their agents to establish if their site development options would facilitate disposal of lands to the HSE or the incorporation of a primary care centre into a development at this location. These discussions are still ongoing and we understand that the owners are still considering their options. We await confirmation of their position. In the event that this site is not deliverable, all other options will then be considered by the HSE. Nevertheless Finglas south and west remains a priority for the Department and HSE as it is one of the communities most in need of access to primary care services.

I will bring all of the issues raised by Deputy Noel Rock to the attention of the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris.

I thank the Minister of State for his considered response to the issues raised and questions posed. I suspect the site the Minister of State spoke about is the same one about which I received correspondence in the past. Maybe the owners of the site have changed their minds or maybe the HSE has moved on to look at a different site since my parliamentary question was submitted. I would rather not specify the site in this forum but I imagine that myself and the Minister of State are talking about the same site. The Minister of State said that all other options will be considered by the HSE in the event that this site is not deliverable and it would seem that now is the time to formulate a plan B. The planning permission application was turned down by An Bord Pleanála, as outlined in the Minister of State's speech, in February 2015. We are now two and a half years on from that point but are no closer to getting a solution, even though this project was announced five years ago. The funding has been ring fenced year after year and the needs of the people in Finglas south and west are no less than they were five years ago. In fact, those needs are even greater now. I appreciate that this was not the Minister of State's brief in 2012 nor from 2013 to 2016. However, his words here today are encouraging and his commitment is commendable. I would greatly appreciate it if the Minister of State could roll up his sleeves and use his considerable ability to join with me in trying to bring about a solution for these people.

I thank Deputy Rock for his comments. In terms of the site issue, I agree that we need total clarity because this is not acceptable. In terms of urgency, I will push this matter with the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, because progress to date has been slow. The people of Finglas deserve a primary care centre as a right, as far as I am concerned. I will do anything that I can to progress the project and find a solution. I assure Deputy Rock that I will use whatever clout I have. It is time for the talking to end. The people of Finglas south need and deserve a primary care centre. I have seen primary care centres in Coolock and other parts of my own constituency and they work very well. I know from Deputy Rock's experience and his very good work on the ground in the Finglas area that we urgently need to make this primary care centre a priority. I accept the Deputy's point that a plan B is urgently needed. I will bring the Deputy's concerns back to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and will do my best to ensure that Deputy Rock's constituents get the best health services, which is what they deserve.

Garda Stations

I am joined by my colleague from Sligo-Leitrim, Deputy Eamon Scanlon. Deputy Tony McLoughlin is also present, and I know this matter is very close to the heart of Deputy Martin Kenny. It concerns Sligo Garda station, a regional and divisional headquarters which houses an assistant commissioner, a chief superintendent, a superintendent, 140 gardaí and 20 civilians. For many years it has not been fit for purpose and it was condemned by the regional safety adviser of An Garda Síochána in October 2015. In July 2016 an independent health and safety specialist, Mr. Michael O'Reilly, who was hired by the GRA, also condemned the cells. Since October 2016 no drinking water has been available. We all salute the heroics of a number of gardaí who, on no less than four occasions throughout the summer months, saved people from the River Garavogue but did not have a shower to warm them up and clean themselves in afterwards.

This is totally unacceptable and a walkout was arranged by staff in October 2016, although it was deferred on the basis of absolute assurances from management that temporary works would be carried out to make the existing Garda station usable and safe until a new Garda regional headquarters was built. To this day no works have happened and this is totally unacceptable and an insult to the people of the north-west region. This regional office is the headquarters for Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal and Louth.

This is happening against the backdrop of the cynical reopening of Stepaside Garda station. An apparent leak to the media from a report to which the Committee of Public Accounts, of which I am a member, was refused access suggests the decision was based on population increases, which is another dubious retrofit to satisfy political gain. In Meath, the Garda stations in Kilmessan and Crosskeel have closed while Athboy and Oldcastle are push-button situations. However, there has been a 59% increase in property theft and an increase in burglaries of 44% in that county. The county has also had the same increase in population, according to census 2016, as Dublin at 5.9% but Stepaside was a very specific case, at the expense of the likes of Sligo and Meath. What is the reason for this?

The people cannot take politicians seriously unless they do what they say they are going to do but the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, was in Sligo on 21 August and said we would have a site for the new Garda station within three or four weeks. This is week six but nothing has happened except an absence of drinking water, condemned cells and prisoners in a regional headquarters being transported 15 miles after public order arrests on a Saturday night. What is it that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has? Outside the Step Inn, in the run-up to Christmas 2015, the champion Independent could be seen wearing a Santa Claus hat. Straddling him was Councillor Kevin Daly holding a sign reading "Open Stepaside Garda station". What happened? It is reopened based on a spurious criterion while the people of Sligo are forced to suffer and the people of Meath, with the same population increase as Dublin, are dismissed and thrown under the bus.

Does the sum of the Ministers, the Meath Deputies Regina Doherty, Damien English and Helen McEntee, not equal the influence the great almighty himself, the Minister, Deputy Ross, has on Government? The assistant Whip, Deputy Tony McLoughlin, Deputy Eamon Scanlon, Deputy Martin Kenny and I represent three different political entities and are all committed to the same thing. Do we have no say? When it comes to giving gardaí the basic working conditions they deserve, are we making the criteria up as we go along?

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, who, unfortunately, cannot be here today, I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I also recognise the interest Deputies Scanlon, Martin Kenny and McLoughlin, who has previously raised the matter, have in the issue.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Office of Public Works has primary responsibility for the provision and maintenance of Garda accommodation and works closely with the Garda authorities in this regard. The Programme for a Partnership Government recognises that An Garda Síochána must also have the modern technology and other resources, including fit-for-purpose buildings, necessary to do its job and notes that the capital plan 2016-2021 secured resources in this regard. The Deputy will be aware of the significant efforts being made by Government to enhance the working environment generally for members of An Garda Síochána, and of the major investment that has been committed under the capital plan 2016-2021 to upgrade Garda premises, the Garda fleet and Garda ICT infrastructure. This is evidenced by the Garda station building and refurbishment programme 2016-2021, which is an ambitious five-year programme that will benefit over 30 locations around the country and includes over €60 million of Exchequer funding as part of the capital plan as well as a major public private partnership project.

Under the programme, a new Garda station is to be provided in Sligo, together with stations in Macroom and Clonmel, by means of public private partnership. The Deputy will be aware that, in order to secure a suitable site for the Sligo development, the Office of Public Works placed advertisements in local and national newspapers in January 2017 seeking expressions of interest from property owners or developers, with returns received in February 2017. I am informed that the Office of Public Works, together with Garda estate management, reviewed the submitted proposals in early April 2017 and a number of suitable sites have been identified as possible options for the development. In this context, the Office of Public Works is now actively progressing the acquisition of a site and I understand that the aim is to reach agreement on the purchase of a suitable site very soon. The Minister has been advised that, pending the development of the new station, local Garda management and the Office of Public Works have been working closely to develop proposals to improve the accommodation situation in the existing station. This includes exploring options for the relocation of certain functions outside the station and reconfiguring the premises to meet the needs of front-line operational personnel and to address space or health and safety concerns.

Further, the Minister has been assured that, within every Garda division, there are adequate custody facilities to meet legal standards. I also understand that other short-term measures have been taken to address and improve the accommodation situation at the station. For example, works to fully refurbish the toilets above the public office were completed in late July 2016 and a new industrial-standard kitchen facility has been installed.

On behalf of the Minister, I want to reassure the House that the Government is fully committed to proceeding with its major investment programme that aims to provide new stations and to modernise older stations at key locations around the country, ensuring a safe, modern working environment for gardaí as well as fit-for-purpose facilities for visitors, victims and suspects.

As is so often the case, all people are equal but some are more equal than others. Just because Deputies McLoughlin, Scanlon, Martin Kenny and I did not stand bearing gifts, as Santa Claus Ross did outside the Step Inn at Christmas 2015, it seems the OPW is pressing ahead and is at an advanced stage of reopening the semi-derelict building in Stepaside, and this was confirmed by the acting Commissioner at the Committee of Public Accounts last week, just to placate the Minister, Deputy Ross, and to keep him on board in the Government. It seems the Ministers, Deputies Regina Doherty, English and McEntee, can go to hell despite the fact that their county has had the same population increases. The same applies to Deputies McLoughlin, Martin Kenny, Scanlon and me because nobody cares about the people of the north west. Here we are again, getting an IOU, which reminds me of "Dumb and Dumber" and the promise "That's as good as money, Sir." The Minister is telling us he has great plans, he will do this and do up the other but nothing has happened yet. Ask the GRA, ask the detective branch and ask the assistant commissioner. I do not blame any of them as they are living and working in conditions that are not fit for anybody. If this was a private sector premises it would have been closed down already but because it is in-house, people are told to keep quiet. They are told that they will be looked after in due course but the sum of McLoughlin, MacSharry, Scanlon and Martin Kenny, not to mention the three Meath Ministers, Regina Doherty, McEntee and English, does not equal that of Ross.

What does the Minister have to say to the people of Sligo? I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is not the line Minister and I mean no disrespect to him but it is a further example of the contempt shown to the people of Sligo that the senior line Minister does not have the courtesy or the manners to come here to discuss the issue. Instead, we have the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran - who is a fine gentleman - coming to Sligo, promising a site within three weeks but nothing has happened. We saw the tweets from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, announcing the opening of Stepaside Garda station at the beginning of June. The deputy commissioner confirmed to us at the Committee of Public Accounts last week that it was under way but Sligo can wait.

I must be in the wrong place this evening because I thought I was discussing Sligo and not Stepaside. Once again, on behalf of the Minister-----

So did we, but it seems that the priority the Government is giving to Stepaside does not equal that of Sligo. Therefore, why would I not give Stepaside as an example.

The Minister of State is inviting comment.

I was addressing the Chair.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. As I mentioned, the provision of a new Garda facility in Sligo is a key component of the Garda station building and refurbishment programme 2016-2021, which is an ambitious five-year programme that will benefit more than 30 locations around the country.

In the context of the proposed new station in Sligo, the Office of Public Works is progressing the acquisition of a suitable site, having placed advertisements locally earlier this year. I want to repeat that because I do not think it was heard earlier. The Office of Public Works is progressing the acquisition of a suitable site. Furthermore, local Garda management and the Office of Public Works are working closely to improve the accommodation in the existing station. This is in addition to the other short-term measures that have been taken to address and improve the accommodation situation at the station. For example, works to fully refurbish toilets above the public office were completed and a new industrial standard kitchen has been installed.

On behalf of the Minister, I again want to reassure the House that the Government is fully committed to proceeding with its major investment programme that aims to provide new stations and modernise older stations at key locations around the country, including Sligo, to ensure a safe, modern working environment for gardaí as well as fit-for-purpose facilities for visitors, victims and suspects.

I am sure the Deputy will be there when we eventually reopen this new station which will be before too long.