Topical Issue Debate

School Accommodation Provision

I want to raise the issue of the requirement of a second level school for the greater area of Saggart and Citywest. The most recent census showed that the Saggart area has one of the fastest growing populations in the country, and a quick drive through Citywest will clearly indicate that major residential construction is under way. The area is currently served by four primary schools. To be specific, one might say that one of the schools is in Saggart and three are in Citywest. Anybody who knows the area there will know that it is one geographic area, but the problem is that there is no second level school dedicated to that area. While it may not be a problem today, it is an impending problem. The national schools operating today do not all have children who have reached sixth class. In other words, some of the national schools' oldest students are in third or fourth class and the number of children projected to leave those schools over the coming years are as follows. In 2019, some 96 children will be looking for a second level school; in 2020, that number will increase to 120; in 2021, it will climb to 164, and in 2022 to 188. I am not suggesting for one moment that all 188 children will want to go to one school, but that indicates the growing population in that geographic area.

More than 600 houses are under construction in Citywest. Planning permission has been granted for an equal number, and hundreds more are in the planning process. Anybody who takes time to look at this issue will see the actual demand. My concern is that when I raised this issue a number of weeks ago by means of a parliamentary question, the response was less than satisfactory. It said that the new 1,000 pupil post-primary school referred to by the Deputy in the Kingswood area of Tallaght opened in September 2016 to serve the needs of the students in the school planning area, which includes the Citywest area. Unfortunately, that will not be sufficient. There will not be capacity there, and it is not close enough to Citywest to be a viable school. Every community deserves a second level school where there are sufficient feeder schools to support it. This needs to be dealt with now, or in a couple of years we will have students looking for a second level place where there is no school available.

I wish to rase this issue again, and I agree with what Deputy Curran has said. Without repeating the points he made, there are a couple of aspects I would like to make very clear. Citywest is one of the fastest growing areas where new housing is concerned. A community's parents and children cannot be expected to rely on a school located in Kingswood or a school proposed to be located in Firhouse.

I appreciate that in answer to questions the Department has made reference to this, but there are two points I would like to make very clear. First is the cohesion of a community, that is, the ability of parents and children to go to a school in their local area rather than being dissipated; and, second, the reality of life in Dublin today. A school might be very close to Citywest geographically, that is, literally a few kilometres down the road, but we must consider the impracticality of asking parents to bring children to a school, because they will have to do so as public transport will not be available. This could result in a journey that takes 45 minutes, although it could be done in a few minutes outside peak times. It could take 45 minutes to get there and 40 minutes to get back, depending on traffic. If one considers that a parent might have a second child going to another school, one begins to grasp the impossibility of providing a solution in Kingswood or Firhouse. The solution is a school for Citywest.

I acknowledge the excellent work of the Department in providing primary schools, and the building programme that is beginning to see schools built throughout the country. However, Citywest needs its school. It needs the Department to recognise that the solution is not a school elsewhere but a school in Citywest.

It is disappointing that the Minister for Education and Skills is not here. We have been attempting to submit this Topical Issue for five or six sitting days at this stage. It is not often that all the Deputies from two constituencies get together to vocalise and articulate the needs of parents and children in a particular area.

The area in question is burgeoning. As has been pointed out, the existing primary schools are already bursting at the seams. For example, Holy Family national school in Rathcoole, which was constructed to cater for 1,000 pupils, already has 900. There are over 300 pupils in Citywest Educate Together national school and another 300 in the Citywest & Saggart community national school. Saggart and Rathcoole are two of the largest and fastest-growing towns in Ireland. The Citywest estates closer to the Tallaght end also need to be considered.

I understand that the Minister received quite a number of letters from children attending the primary school. We saw samples of those at a recent meeting and we heard about them. Children are pleading with the Minister. They love their existing school so much that they want to be guaranteed that they will be able to stay with their friends and continue their education, from primary to post-primary, together. There has been a huge amount of activity pushing for this on the part of parents associated with a number of local national schools. Some of the Deputies mentioned the pressure on existing transport services and congestion. The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, will agree that children need and deserve the opportunity to stay together and learn.

At present, there are teenagers in the area queueing for buses to bring them to other community schools, either in Kingswood or, as proposed, Firhouse. This is not fair on any of the communities. Rather than having the parents who are working hard torment themselves over the coming years, the Minister of State should tell us when the review of school needs in the area will be produced. The Government should trust politicians and parents who say the review is not needed. Politicians, parents and the children know the area is entitled to a post-primary school and that the numbers are already sufficient to justify it.

I add my voice to the calls for a stand-alone secondary school in Citywest and Saggart. I have no doubt the Minister of State will tell us in his answer that, when making decisions, the Department analyses all the relevant demographic data, has regard to the school planning areas and uses its geographical information system. The problem with all the data sources is that they do not adequately capture the reality of the level of need in the location in question, which straddles two school planning areas. In fact, it is right on the boundary, with a portion of the school building on one side and a portion on the other. It is a very new community. As previous speakers have stated, it is growing quite rapidly. On that basis, it is very clear that there is a strong case for a stand-alone school, notwithstanding what the data the Department ordinarily gathers suggest.

One of the factors that some Deputies did not mention is that one of the schools that is being suggested as one which could cater for all the pupils coming out of primary level is actually 5 km away. Whatever about the 45 minutes to the school in Kingswood - Deputy Brophy is absolutely right in this regard - the time it would take to get across to Firhouse in any type of traffic, especially rush-hour traffic, is particularly problematic. Of course, there is no bus service from where the residents live to the school. This also causes problems for families.

Schools are not just places of education. As the Minister of State will know from his constituency, they are also a focus for community activity. Having its own secondary school would afford the new, growing community in question benefits above and beyond the educational aspect. I urge the Department and the Minister to consider this in the context of the review.

There is an urgent need for five ASD classes. They are currently provided in the primary schools. They are not available in the secondary schools within the broader school catchment areas. They will be missed terribly if not provided in this particular location.

Deputy Lahart is absolutely correct that the letters from the children to the Minister were absolutely brilliant. The children are saying they want to stay with their school pals, to remain in the local community and to be educated in Citywest and Saggart. I can see no reason why the Minister for Education and Skills should not allow them to do that.

The case has been outlined clearly. The bottom line is that the numbers speak for themselves. Ninety-six children from four existing national schools in Saggart and Citywest will need second-level places in 2019. As Deputy Eoin Ó Broin mentioned, five ASD classes will need a second-level school by 2020. By 2022, 568 children will need second-level places. The answer so far, according to people who face travel of a very substantial nature, is one that will not mean the building of the kind of community that could be built.

I pay tribute to the parents who have been campaigning for the school for a long period and who have forced this onto the agenda. We have asked many parliamentary questions and now we have a Topical Issue debate. The parents will not give up and will continue to fight for the school. They have been seeking a meeting with the Minister. I ask the Minister of State to arrange that meeting in order that, among other things, the letters from the children can be passed on to the Minister. In the letters, the children outline why a second-level school needs to be built in Citywest and Saggart. For example, Malcolm says he wants to stay part of Citywest and to continue to have a no-uniform policy, which I understand. He says he cannot walk long distances because of asthma. Holly, aged six, says she wants to stay with her friends and learn with friends from her community in her own school. The letter that touched me most was from Emily, who said, "Mam can't afford to buy a car. Minister, has your mam got a car?" Kids will be forced to take buses but the services do not exist. One would effectively have to go into town or to the Square in Tallaght and then get another bus in order to get to school. This is extremely difficult for people, not to mention children with special needs. The Government and the Department of Education and Skills need to make a decision to locate a school in the area.

I am taking this on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Bruton, who is at a rescheduled Cabinet meeting. He would have liked to have been here and had anticipated that he would but unfortunately he is not because he is at the Cabinet meeting.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. It gives me the opportunity to set out the process by which the Department of Education and Skills identifies and provides for school places in step with demographic trends, including in the Citywest and Saggart areas of County Dublin. As the Deputies may be aware, in order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. The Department uses a geographical information system, GIS, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. The GIS uses data from a range of sources, including the Central Statistics Office, Ordnance Survey Ireland, the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Education and Skills' own databases. The Department has also engaged with all local authorities and other planning bodies on any additional significant residential development which may give rise to additional demographic pressure. With this information, the Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises at primary and post-primary levels to determine where additional school accommodation is needed. Where demographic data indicate that additional provision is required, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may, depending on the circumstances, be provided through either one, or a combination of, the following: utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools; extending the capacity of a school or schools; and the provision of a new school or schools.

For school planning purposes, the Saggart and Citywest areas are located within the Tallaght and Newcastle-Rathcoole school planning areas. A new 1,000-pupil post-primary school in the Kingswood area of Tallaght was established in September 2016 to serve the needs of students in the Tallaght school planning area, which includes Citywest. A building project for this school commenced construction in August 2017. In addition, a new 1,000-pupil post-primary school is due to be established in September 2018 in Firhouse-Oldbawn, which is adjacent to the Tallaght area. When fully developed, this school will provide 1,000 pupil places. Nationwide demographic exercises involving all school planning areas - including the Tallaght and Newcastle-Rathcoole school planning areas - that will determine where new school provision will be needed from 2019 are ongoing. It is anticipated that decisions based on these exercises will be announced in the coming weeks.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. I understand the pressures that parents and children are under. I acknowledge the letters that were sent by children to the Minister, which I obviously have not seen. Areas of growth, such as those in the Dublin area, are acutely under pressure. Reference was made to commuting for 45 minutes. Forty-five minutes would bring one a long way from my area of rural Connemara to Clifden, which is miles away. Clearly, close proximity in city traffic is a different story entirely.

I will bring the Deputies' concerns to the Minister. He would have liked to have been here. I thank Deputies Curran, Brophy, Lahart, Ó Broin and Paul Murphy for raising this very important matter on behalf of the parents and children. I understand the pressures that parents are under owing to the lack of school places. In places of high growth and for popular schools, parents are registering their children at a very young age. I am acutely aware of concerns over the lack of availability of school places in the locality in question. All Deputies in the House and everybody involved in public service would be aware of that. I will certainly relay the Deputies' concerns to the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State for the response but I am somewhat disappointed that what he read out was exactly the same as the reply to a parliamentary question which I received a month ago from the Minister. It does not really address the key concern. A point in time will come when there will be a second-level school in the Saggart-Citywest area. There are four primary schools in the area now and 1,700 housing units are either under construction or at the planning stage. This is rapidly growing and the challenge we are trying to meet collectively is to provide a second-level school for the four existing primary schools before the students are shipped off 5 km to Kingswood or other schools. The population from those four schools is sufficient of itself in today's terms to support a second-level school already. The Minister of State referred to the data from the nationwide demographic exercise involving all schools. Saggart and Citywest must be identified as an area and fast-tracked because it will not wait.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and will pick up on that straight away. The real solution is in the nationwide demographic exercise. The Citywest-Saggart area must be an area in its own right. The Department has models it likes and a way in which it likes to work. Nobody on the ground locally or who is in any way involved in a daily life in Citywest would tell the Department that it is possible to have a school 5 km or 6 km away to which it is possible to get children in morning rush hour traffic in Dublin. It just does not make sense and there is no bus service to facilitate it. It is very different from rural Ireland in the problems faced by parents and children. The problem is not distance, it is time. There must be a recognition by the Department that the model as it stands, which allows it to take into account schools either in Firhouse or Kingswood as suitable to serve the needs of Citywest, will not work in the future.

I ask the Minister of State to ensure my name and that of Deputy Paul Murphy are included in the formal written response as they are not included now. That would be valuable to us. The reply says that where demographic data indicate additional provision is required, there are three options. We can eliminate the first two options of extending a school or sending students to a different school. One of the resources on which the Department does not rely is the knowledge and experience of politicians in the area. This is not about wishful thinking. We represent all the areas, even those which contain schools which are being suggested as alternatives for students from the Saggart and Citywest area. They are in rapidly growing areas as well and it is only a matter of time before they begin to exceed their numbers. As such, options Nos. 1 and 2 are out. The only option is the provision of a new school for the area. I understand and accept that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, cannot be here. I ask the Minister of State to secure from him a meeting with the parents' representatives. I ask for a commitment before the Easter break from the Minister on his intention to meet representatives of parents from the national schools in the Citywest area.

I have some sympathy for the Minister of State who is simply reading out the answer he has been given by the officials. However, I hope he will express our disappointment to the Minister who is responsible for the response because it does not deal with the concerns we are raising, in particular in terms of the inadequacy of the two other schools which have been proposed either due to oversubscription or distance, the lack of public transport services and the need for autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units and a community focus. The fact that there is such cross-party support is an indication of the strength of the local community's campaign. It is a rare day on which Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Anti-Austerity Alliance all campaign for a much-needed resource and it speaks volumes.

It is important to remember that this is an integral part of the South Dublin County Council county development plan, which was unanimously and democratically agreed by all political parties. The plan represents the considered view of the council. Like other Deputies, I ask the Minister of State to please convey our concerns to the Minister and ask him to respond to all of us directly on the points we have raised. I ask him to please ask the Minister to meet with the parents' campaign group. I think he would find that very constructive in respect of his consideration.

The reply is disappointing, which is unsurprising given that it is the same answer we got before. It does not grapple with the reality for this community of Citywest and Saggart. Saggart is the fastest growing urban town in the country and its population has increased by almost 50% since 2011. It is an area in which almost 1,785 new homes are being built and an increase in population of 6,600 is expected in the next number of years. The reply does not deal with that. Instead, it says the areas are located within Tallaght, Newcastle and Rathcoole and fall between two stools. The students are simply expected to go to schools which are 5 km away. The Department must engage with the reality of communities that exist in a real sense, have primary schools and need a secondary school and the community space and facilities that go with it. I echo the call for the Minister to arrange a meeting with the relevant parents.

I thank the Deputies for their concern. It is recognised that there is cross-party support for the provision of school facilities within this area straddling two constituencies. While I cannot, obviously, arrange a meeting on his behalf, I will certainly put the request to the Minister to meet parents' representatives on demographic pressures and their concerns about school provision. I am told the national demographic exercise involving all school planning areas at primary and post-primary level is due to be announced in the coming weeks. The Department is factoring into the demographic exercise its critical data, including updated enrolment data and up-to-date information on additional residential developments from local authorities. Any major new residential development can have a huge impact on demand in a school planning area. As such, it is important that where large developments are planned, the Department takes them into account.

The Department's report on projections for full-time primary and secondary level enrolments for 2017 to 2035, which was published last July, provides the latest set of long-term projects for full enrolments in primary and second level schools. The report is based on a number of assumptions and modelling of three migration assumptions and two fertility assumptions. The projections are based on a slightly positive inward migration trend from 2017 on and a gradual decline in total period fertility rate in the coming years to 1.8 by 2025, remaining constant thereafter. Therefore, enrolments at primary level are expected to peak in the 2018-19 academic year at 567,369 pupils nationwide before beginning to decline from the 2019-20 academic year. At post-primary level, enrolments are expected to increase until the 2025-26 academic year when they will peak at 416,897 before beginning to decline. I will put the Deputies' concerns and requests to the Minister, Deputy Bruton.

Hospitals Car Park Charges

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, for being here. I appreciate that it is not directly under her remit.

The Minister of State taking the matter is Deputy Finian McGrath.

I am representing the Minister, Deputy Harris.

No offence was intended to anybody. I am sorry the Minister, Deputy Harris, is not present but I will take the Minister of State's good self. I am happy to have him. I raise the issue of parking throughout the country. The Irish Cancer Society and other representative organisations, including those representing persons with disabilities in which the Minister of State has a personal interest, have been lobbying for reduced or waived parking charges at hospitals, in particular for outpatient appointments. We are speaking here about people who are at a very vulnerable stage in their lives as they fight serious illness, in particular cancer. The Irish Cancer Society has been mounting a campaign for almost two years to have some uniformity nationally in our hospital network where cancer treatment is provided in order that patients do not have the added worry of parking charges. The additional cost of suffering from cancer has been found by the society to be anywhere between €862 and €1,200 per month. Parking charges for regular outpatient appointments certainly contribute to that.

I am sure this has been the subject of many parliamentary questions, and certainly questions in all the local authority areas throughout the country. In Sligo last week, my colleague, Councillor Tom MacSharry, tabled a motion on this topic calling for free parking throughout the hospital network for cancer patients.

It has been reported that the annual income from car parking charges in the hospital network is €13 million. People are not going to hospital for a day out and they are not going to meet somebody for coffee. They are going there because they are under the weather. They may have a serious illness, such as cancer, and are going in for outpatient treatment. There may be less serious conditions whereby, equally, people are going for treatment. All of these people, or, in the case of children, their families, have contributed in taxation through the years to the annual HSE budget, which amounts to €14.5 billion this year. The budget increase on last year is €608 million. If one just took 2% of that 608 million, one would have the €13 million in car parking charges.

Where people visit hospitals on a one-off basis, for example, to visit somebody who is having a baby, it is reasonable that there would be charges. However, anybody who is seriously ill, not only people with cancer but also those with a wide range of life-limiting conditions and long-term illnesses that require regular visits and regular treatment, should be provided with parking discs. While certain hospitals - Tullamore, St. Luke's, Letterkenny, Mayo, Portiuncula, University Hospital Limerick, Kilkenny, Wexford, Kerry and Connolly - have free parking, others, including Sligo University Hospital in my constituency, do not have any arrangements. It is simply untenable that, for example, Connolly Hospital here in Dublin does not apply parking charges in respect of cancer patients whereas just a few miles down the road at the Mater Hospital, people are expected to pay €15. In the overall scheme of a budget that is closer to €15 billion than to any other number, is €13 million, or perhaps half that amount, all that necessary when one considers the level of compassion we ought to be showing to patients with long-term illnesses such as cancer, those with disabilities and others?

It has been announced that the HSE has been asked to review the position in order that we can come up with uniform guidelines nationally. Can the Minister of State provide a timeframe for that? When will it happen? Has it been kicked out by the HSE to one of those big firms between the two canals here in Dublin that will get a couple of hundred grand to do it? Can the Minister of State outline the position?

I thank Deputy MacSharry for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, who, incidentally, apologises for not being present as he is still at the Cabinet meeting.

Last week, the Minister requested that the HSE carry out a review of car parking charges at all hospitals with the aim of establishing clear national guidelines in this area for the first time. We all welcome that. While recognising that hospitals are cognisant of the impact of parking charges on patients, particularly those with long-term illnesses, and that revenue from parking charges is, by and large, applied for the provision of services, the Minister is nevertheless concerned to ensure that a national approach is applied. He has asked the HSE, in conducting the review, to take into account the existing parking arrangements at each hospital, the financial impact on patients and families and data on the income generated by these charges.

While the Minister fully recognises the relevance of this issue in the context of the needs of cancer patients, inpatients as well as outpatients, there are many patients who have other long-term illnesses and who also require regular hospital visits. The Minister has asked the HSE, in conducting its review, to engage with the Irish Cancer Society and other patient advocacy groups in order to ensure that the circumstances of all patients, particularly those who require long-term care, are taken into account - Deputy MacSharry also mentioned those with disabilities in this regard. It is appropriate to await the findings of this review in order that any national guidelines will take into account the parking needs of all patients with long-term illnesses, including arrangements for outpatient cancer treatment appointments.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. Like so many reviews, this one is on the never-never. When will it take place? When will it be finished? What will be the outcome? Let us put a deadline on it. At the end of the day, it is not rocket science. I ask that it be, as the Minister of State correctly stated in his reply, not specifically for cancer patients, although I would prioritise them.

The overall income nationally from hospital car parking charges is €13 million. In isolation, that is a great deal of money. In the context of the overall health budget, however, and taking cognisance of why people use the health service, can we show appropriate compassion for as many groups as possible and waive parking charges all over the country for them, and can we let those who make one-off visits to hospitals pay a contribution in the normal way?

I thank the Minister of State for his response but I hope that he will be able to give me an indication of the timeframe. This is not something that we are happy to leave on the never-never.

I acknowledge the points raised by Deputy MacSharry in respect of this particular issue. It is important that we focus on the core issue of the priorities for patients and bring the concept of compassion into the debate. I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the Minister because the issues he raises are important.

The Minister and I are committed to meeting the needs of cancer patients through the implementation of the National Cancer Strategy 2017-2026, which was launched last year. We are focused on preventing cancer, early diagnosis, the provision of quality treatment and the health and well-being of those living beyond cancer.

The HSE advises that 40 hospital car parks are owned and operated by hospitals, ten of which do not charge for parking. Five hospitals do not have car parks. The HSE advises that four hospital car parks are owned and operated by private companies. These are located at: St. Michael's; Sligo University Hospital; South Tipperary General Hospital; and Cork University Hospital. An example of good practice in this issue is Our Lady of Lourdes, Drogheda, where patients attending for certain cancer treatments at the oncology unit are afforded reduced rates of car parking. I believe parking is free for oncology patients at Mayo General Hospital and at Portiuncula Hospital. There are examples of hospitals adapting to the needs of their patients.

The review of hospital parking charges has already begun and the Minister looks forward to receiving the report on it. I am not familiar with the timescale for the review but we will definitely come back to the Deputy with an answer on that. The review will facilitate the development of national guidelines for hospital parking charges cognisant of the situations of various patient groups, including cancer patients.

Shannon Airport Facilities

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter.

Last week was the 15th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. On 20 March 2003, Dáil Éireann approved a Government motion authorising the use of Shannon Airport for the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. With that motion, put forward by the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, Ireland declared itself party to an illegal and baseless invasion of a sovereign country. Fianna Fáil argued at the time that even though it found it regrettable that there was no agreement at the UN Security Council level, it felt it necessary to support the Americans and the British in their war of aggression in light of what they interpreted to be a violation on the part of the Iraqi Government of its obligation to disarm of its weapons over a 12-year period. He said he hoped that the war would be a short one and said that Ireland would be happy to help rebuild the country after the bombing had ended. To quote the then Taoiseach that day:

One thing, however, is ... clear. Conflict could have been avoided if Saddam Hussein had complied with the long-standing demands of the UN Security Council that Iraq surrender its weapons of mass destruction. The simple fact is that he refused to do so.

This was completely false. Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, was in front of the UN Security Council saying that US and British intelligence had led to zero significant finds in Iraq, that the Iraqi Government was co-operating and that his work was not finished. To quote Blix, "We went to sites [in Iraq] given to us by intelligence" and "There were about 700 inspections, and in no case did we find weapons of mass destruction."

Deputy Enda Kenny argued against the relevant motion in the Dáil, stating:

It matters to our international credibility now and in the future. It matters to our self-respect as a nation. It matters to our respect for international law and the institutions set up to implement that law.

When the then leader of Fine Gael was arguing that Fianna Fáil was about to destroy our tradition of neutrality and rip-up international law while we were at it, Fianna Fáil Deputies shouted across the Chamber that he was a Saddam supporter.

Article 29 of the Constitution states:

1. Ireland affirms its devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality.

2. Ireland affirms its adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination.

3. Ireland accepts the generally recognised principles of international law as its rule of conduct in its relations with other States.

Article 28.3.1° states:

War shall not be declared and the State shall not participate in any war save with the assent of Dáil Éireann.

In fact, we have now taken part in many wars through allowing the use of Shannon as a military airbase by the US military. It is just that the US does not consider bombing another sovereign country as an act of war so, conveniently, neither do we.

Today seven principal countries are being bombed by the US and its allies: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. In Yemen today, not including those who will be killed by US- and UK-made bombs, 100 or more children will die from avoidable hunger and disease as a result of the Saudi actions. We keep raising these issues here in the Dáil and our Ministers keep flying over there for drinks with the perpetrators.

The former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, was right in what he said in 2003. I wish the Government would reconsider its position.

I thank Deputy Wallace for raising this issue. Like my colleagues, I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, who had hoped to take this question but unfortunately is still at the Cabinet meeting. Therefore, I will take it on his behalf.

I welcome the opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s policy on landings by foreign military aircraft at Irish airports. Responsibility for the regulation of foreign aircraft landing in or overflying the State is shared between Departments. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has primary responsibility for the regulation of foreign military aircraft while the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport leads on regulation of foreign civil aircraft. As the issue for debate is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I will confine my focus to foreign military aircraft landing at Shannon Airport.

Successive Governments have made landing facilities at Shannon available to the US for over 50 years. This practice did not begin in 2003. The facility to land is also made available to military aircraft from other countries. It is for reasons of geography that the majority of landings are made by US aircraft. Permission must be sought in advance for landings by all foreign military aircraft. Foreign military aircraft of any and all states requesting permission to avail of facilities at Shannon or any other Irish airport must adhere to strict conditions. These conditions are applied to ensure compatibility with Ireland’s policy of military neutrality and include stipulations that the aircraft is unarmed, carries no arms, ammunition or explosives; and that it must not engage in intelligence gathering and does not form part of any military operation or exercise.

In considering requests for landings by foreign military aircraft, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s primary focus is on whether the flights in question comply with these conditions. No distinction between states is made when it comes to the application of these criteria.

It has been repeatedly suggested that such normal facilitation is an indication of this Government’s lack of commitment to Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality. I am glad to have a further opportunity to reaffirm that this Government upholds and will continue to uphold that longstanding and publicly cherished policy.

This commitment was detailed in the White Paper on Defence published in August 2015 while the review of foreign policy, The Global Island, published in January 2015 similarly reaffirmed that Ireland’s policy of military neutrality remains a core element of Irish foreign policy.

The practical implementation of the conditions for granting permission for landings by foreign military aircraft is guided by and reflects Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality to which, as I have already outlined, the Government is fully committed.

I would like to reiterate that the facility granted to the US, as to other countries, to land at Shannon airport is both transparent and open. The strict conditions that apply to such landings are a matter of public record having been set out on many occasions in the House. This policy of military neutrality, together with our own international activism on issues such as disarmament, international crisis management and peace keeping, has helped us to speak with a distinctive and independent voice on many of the key challenges facing the world regarding the maintenance of international peace and security. Furthermore, Ireland fully recognises the links between security and development and that the widest possible range of tools and instruments including security, development co-operation and humanitarian are required to respond to conflict and crisis. Indeed, Ireland is the eighth largest donor to the UN central emergency response fund, an important humanitarian financing mechanism for underfunded and rapid onset emergencies. It contributed €22 million to the fund last year and a further €10 million has been pledged for 2018, of which €8 million has already been distributed in Iraq, a country which has suffered significantly at the hands of Daesh. The appalling atrocities that this terrorist organisation has inflicted on Iraqi citizens is one of the reasons why since 2012 we have provided just over €10.6 million in humanitarian assistance. We have consistently called for inclusive democratic solutions. We have emphasised that the security efforts must be complimented by the implementation of the programme for national reconciliation that was set out by Prime Minister Abadi in late 2014.

If we were genuinely concerned about the humanitarian problems and conditions in these countries, we would not allow aircraft to land in Shannon to go on there and wreak havoc on these peoples. The Minister of State says that one of the conditions on military aircraft to land are that the aircraft must be unarmed, carries no arms, ammunition or explosives and it must not engage in intelligence gathering and does not form part of any military operation or exercise.

They do not fly empty military planes around the world. They put stuff in them. It costs over €250,000 for a US military plane to make a round trip from America through Shannon to the Middle East and back. They do not leave them empty: it would make no sense.

It beggars belief that we can turn a blind eye to the destruction that we are allowing to take place. Back in the day, the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, himself asked that the planes be searched. Before going into government, the Labour Party asked for the planes to be searched. However, when people go into government, they are not prepared to search the planes. It is outrageous.

Modest wine bars import wine from small producers in Italy. The Revenue Commissioners regularly check the loads to see what they contain. We tell them what is in it and show them the papers, but the fact is they are dead right to check the shipment because they cannot be certain of what is in it unless they do. We cannot possibly know what the Americans are up to or what is in a US military plane if we do not search it. One could not expect a child to believe that there are no arms or ammunition coming through Shannon. We know there is. It is outrageous that the Government continues to allow this to happen and to allow the destruction that is caused by the US military in these regions.

We have the Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) order 1952 which clearly states that:

No foreign military aircraft shall fly over or land in the State save on the express invitation or with the express permission of the Minister [for Foreign Affairs and Trade].

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has primary responsibility for the regulation of this activity. Clear stipulations have been put in place that they must be unarmed, carry no arms, ammunition or explosives and that they must not engage in intelligence gathering. The bilateral relations between friendly states, as we are with America, is founded on mutual trust. Both parties have an interest in maintaining that trust. Details provided by diplomatic missions include confirmation that the aircraft are unarmed, carry no arms, and that ammunition or explosives are not on board and are therefore accepted in good faith and are accepted as being accurate. We must do that in accordance with international practice. Foreign military aircraft which are given permission to land in Ireland are not subject to inspection in this regard but sovereign immunity, a long-standing principle of customary international law, means that a state may not exercise its jurisdiction in respect to another state or its property, including state and military aircraft.

These principles apply automatically to foreign state or military aircraft in the same way that they apply to Irish State or military aircraft abroad. We are not applying one rule to somebody else and not to ourselves. To reiterate, our neutrality is in no way compromised. The Tánaiste and his Department are satisfied that the arrangements relating to the transit of US military personnel and the landing of US military aircraft at Shannon Airport do not challenge or undermine the policy of military neutrality in any way. This is of course something which we will continue to monitor and we will continue to engage with the US troops in the region on a daily basis.