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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Vol. 969 No. 7

Topical Issue Debate

Garda Deployment

I wish to raise the issue of the strength of the Garda force in Rathcoole Garda station. I take it the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, will be responding. I do not mean to sound unkind, but I am disappointed that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is not here. I have exhausted other avenues to try to get to the bottom of this issue, through parliamentary questions and so forth. I hope I will not just get the standard reply today telling me that Garda recruitment closed in 2010 and was subsequently reopened, that the Garda force is now at 13,500 or 14,000 and so on. That does not address the particular issue I am concerned about.

As the Minister of State knows well, Rathcoole is near the county boundary of Dublin on the N7. It was traditionally a country village and the Garda station served not just the village of Rathcoole but the hinterland also. For people in Clondalkin like myself, when we were growing up Rathcoole was a common enough place to visit. We would have known our way around it very well and we had friends in Rathcoole who came to school in Clondalkin. Rathcoole has changed significantly since then and its population has grown very dramatically. It continues to grow.

The Garda station in Rathcoole does not just service Rathcoole but also Saggart, Newcastle and Citywest. While they are big areas with a growing population, they also have attractions and features that bring a lot of people into the area. We have the hotel and conference centre in Citywest, the industrial estate at Greenogue, and the business park and industrial estate at Citywest itself. There is a lot of activity in the area in addition to the population.

Just a few years ago, the strength of the Garda force in Rathcoole was 23. Today, according to the reply to my most recent parliamentary question on the matter, the number is 14. It is out of line with everywhere else and there is no explanation. The Minister of State is going to give me the stock answer about recruitment and all that. I cannot understand why we have this decline when the population and economic activity in this hinterland is growing significantly. In 2014 there were 89 gardaí in Clondalkin and today there are 92. In Lucan there were 74 in 2014 and today there are 70. In Ronanstown there were 91 in 2014 and today there are 88. In Rathcoole, however, in 2014 there were 23 gardaí and today there are 14. That is a really significant drop.

This drop means that each Garda unit is a unit of two or three at most. Nobody has cover for holidays or sick leave. It is not physically possible to police the area adequately with that number of gardaí. This drop in numbers for Rathcoole is so obvious and the needs of the community and hinterland are not being addressed. Housing construction under way and in planning is very vibrant at the moment in Citywest, Saggart, Rathcoole and Newcastle. The Department of Education and Skills is opening a new second level college in Citywest within two years. The population and economic needs are there. I have asked many parliamentary questions and I am sorry for the Minister of State because I know he is going to read out the stock answer. I really wanted the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, to address what is going on and why this region is being denied the level of policing it had before in line with other parts of my constituency.

I must apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. He wanted and meant to be here but was delayed at the last minute. I am speaking on his behalf. He is very grateful to the Deputy for raising this matter. He points out at the outset that the distribution of gardaí is exclusively the statutory responsibility of the Garda Commissioner and the Minister has no direct role in the matter.

As the Deputy will be aware, Rathcoole Garda station forms part of the Dublin metropolitan region, DMR, west division. The Minister is informed by the Commissioner that on 30 April 2018, the latest date for which figures are readily available, the strength of the DMR west division was 672, of whom 14 were assigned to Rathcoole Garda station, as the Deputy has already told us. There are also 26 Garda reserves and 55 civilians attached to the division.

The Minister assures the House that the Government is committed to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country in order to maintain and strengthen community engagement, provide reassurance to citizens and deter crime. To make this a reality for all, the Government has in place a plan for an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021, including 15,000 Garda members. The Minister maintains that real, tangible progress has been made towards this goal. Garda numbers, taking into account projected retirements, increased to 13,551 at the end of 2017, a net increase of over 600 since the end of 2016.

The Deputy will be aware that in 2010 a previous Government closed the Garda College and imposed a moratorium. The measures imposed at that time had a negative impact on Garda numbers across all divisions and the legacy of those decisions continues to have consequences for policing. When it had brought about an early exit from the bailout and stabilised the public finances in September 2014, the then Government reopened the college and since then just under 1,800 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána and are performing mainstream duties nationwide. Some 155 of them have been assigned to the DMR west division.

It is important to appreciate that the increased specialisation in An Garda Síochána means the number of gardaí assigned to various divisions does not include those assigned to various special bureaus or units and, of course, those gardaí who are also undertaking critical policing work such as the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the armed support units, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau and the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau. More than 120 extra gardaí were assigned to the specialist units within special crime operations since 2017 alone.

The Minister is pleased that funding is in place to maintain this high level of investment in the Garda workforce to ensure the vision of an overall workforce of 21,000 by 2021 remains on track. This year a further 800 new Garda recruits will enter the Garda College, 400 of whom have already done so. In total, 800 Garda trainees are scheduled to attest during the year, 200 of whom attested in March with a further 200 scheduled to attest next month. Garda numbers, taking account of projected retirements, are on track to reach 14,000 by the end of this year.

This focus on investment in personnel is critical. We are now rebuilding the organisation and providing the Garda Commissioner with the resources needed to deploy increasing numbers of gardaí. Undoubtedly, the ongoing recruitment process will support all Garda activities and enhance visibility in our communities. This will enable the Garda Commissioner to provide additional resources across every Garda division, including the DMR, Dublin metropolitan region, west division, as new Garda recruits continue to come on stream.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. However, as I anticipated, it does not address the issue I raised. Over the past four years, Rathcoole Garda station has seen a 40% reduction in personnel. That is not in line with anything that is happening. I am failing to get an explanation as to why and if the issue can be addressed. It is not as if Rathcoole is in a part of the country that is not growing. Its population is growing rapidly along with its economic activity. The concern I have is that with only 14 gardaí stationed in Rathcoole, the operation and viability of the Garda force there is somewhat challenged. It is two or three people per unit which does not even allow the Garda station to be regularly opened. There is only one community garda. The issue I raised in the significant change in Rathcoole has not been addressed in the Minister of State’s reply.

The Minister of State stated the number of gardaí had increased by 600 in 2017. That is correct. Of those, 120 were sent to specialist units. The number of gardaí in Dublin in 2017 actually declined but the number did not decline by 40% like in Rathcoole. There is no explanation as to why an area with a growing population and economic activity has seen such a decline. It affects not only the village of Rathcoole but Citywest shopping centre, industrial estate, hotel and conference centre. That whole catchment area has seen a significant reduction in the number of gardaí who patrol it. Just four years ago there were 23 gardaí based there and before that, 26. The numbers have been significantly higher but are now down to 14. Residents are quite concerned about the future viability of the Garda station in Rathcoole. While the Minister of State gave an answer - the answer I half expected - it was of a general nature and did not specifically address the Rathcoole issue. Will he ask the Department for some sort of explanation as to why this is so out of kilter with everything else in my area?

Garda management keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities. With regard to the deployment of Garda personnel, a distribution model is used which takes into account all relevant factors, including population, crime trends and the policing needs of each individual division. It is the responsibility of the divisional officer to allocate personnel within his or her division as appropriate. The Minister is advised by the Garda Commissioner that recent census data is currently being incorporated into the personnel allocation model. The Minister understands that census information received on a specific county format is amended by the Garda Síochána analysis service to reflect Garda divisional boundaries. However, it should be noted that ratios, such as the number of garda per head of population, are not an appropriate tool to use when considering the allocation of Garda resources as they fail to take into account, among other matters, the fact that crime levels and types can vary significantly among communities of similar population size.

The Government’s plans for an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 are complemented by substantial investment in resources across the board for the force. Of the significant resources which have been made available to the force under the Government’s capital plan 2016 to 2021, €270 million of additional funding has been provided for ICT and €46 million for new Garda vehicles. The investment will facilitate the provision of more effective policing services. The Minister expects the DMR west division, like all other divisions, will benefit from these new resources becoming available.

Services for People with Disabilities

I want to raise the lack of residential placements for adults with severe disabilities, in particular where they are cared for by one or both elderly parents. I would imagine this is an issue of which the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is acutely conscious. There are families in such circumstances who are existing day by day beyond crisis point.

I recently put down a parliamentary question asking the HSE for data on the overall number of people with disabilities on a waiting list for a residential placement. The HSE stated in the reply there is no centrally maintained list of people waiting for residential services. However, the need for more residential facilities was acknowledged and the HSE continues to explore the issue. The HSE is not even aware of the number of people with severe disabilities who are currently on a waiting list for a residential placement.

Last year, I was informed by the COPE Foundation in Cork that it has 168 people on a waiting list for residential supports. It has divided these into three categories. Priority level No. 1 involves 27 cases where two parents are deceased or the one sole carer is incapacitated in some way. For priority level 2, it had 20 cases which involved the person living with elderly parents and with significant issues of concern for the family coping. The remainder, 121, were priority level 3. That is one service provider alone. Has the Minister of State the overall data? If he does not, will he get it because we need to know the extent of this problem?

What really brought it home to me was one individual case on which I have been working for some time. Unfortunately, it is ongoing. This case involves elderly parents in their mid-70s providing full-time care for a profoundly disabled daughter in her early 40s. She is non-verbal and wheelchair-bound. They have to do absolutely everything for her. They can be woken up several times during the night when she gets upset. They have to do their very best to care for her. I have taken them through the process. They have raised their case with the service provider and the HSE. Their daughter is on a waiting list but there is absolutely no light at the end of the tunnel for her. According to the COPE Foundation’s categorisation, she is not even priority level No. 1 because both her parents are alive. They are elderly and have their own health issues but they are alive.

A senior manager with the HSE said the problem is that it is not getting the funding from the Government to provide these residential places. The parents in question literally have no hope. They go to bed every night with one worry, namely, what happens when they die, whether it is one or both of them. Their daughter will then be elevated to priority level No. 1 within the HSE’s categorisation. Even with that, there is no guarantee, however, that she will get a residential placement. Presumably, some emergency support will kick in. It is an appalling situation. The fact the HSE does not even know how many people are on this waiting list beggars belief.

I hope the Minister of State will shed some light on it today and give some hope to families like the one in question who encouraged me to bring this issue to his attention.

I thank Deputy Michael McGrath for raising this important issue. I am familiar with the issue of elderly parents looking after adults with intellectual disabilities. It is an issue to which we must all give priority.

The Government’s ongoing priority is the safeguarding of vulnerable people in the care of the health service. We are committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities which will empower them to live independent lives.

As part of ongoing service provision, this year the HSE will provide over 8,300 residential places for families in need throughout the country. Residential services make up the largest part of the disability budget. Our policy on people with disabilities is to support them to achieve their full potential in order that, where possible, they can live ordinary lives in ordinary places doing ordinary things. The need for increased residential facilities is acknowledged and I fully accept the point made by the Deputy on the issue. The HSE will continue to work with agencies to explore various ways to respond to this need in line with the budget available. Residential placements for adults with disabilities are considered following detailed clinical assessment by HSE services. Access to places for those with the most complex needs is allocated on a priority basis and on the basis of the availability of appropriate services.

A significant underlying challenge relates to the unmet need for residential and respite care in services as a result of the absence of investment during the economic downturn. Part of the problem is the lack of investment in services for many years. The HSE national database figures indicate an annual requirement of 400 residential places per year to meet identified needs. That is the figure I have encountered as a Minister of State. What we are really talking about is the need for 400 extra and new residential places per year. The services are experiencing a high annual demand for emergency residential places and must respond to the most urgent cases on the waiting list.

This year the HSE disability budget is over €1.7 billion, an increase of €92 million on the figure for last year. We are particularly committed to providing a range of accessible respite supports for people with disabilities and their families. This year the HSE will provide over 182,000 respite care nights and 42,500 day respite care sessions for families in need throughout the country. We acknowledge the need for increased respite care services throughout the country. That is why we secured an additional €10 million to specifically enhance respite care services. This funding will provide extra facilities. We are also planning to provide a range of alternative respite care options for families.

This is the core issue in the debate. We need 400 new residential places every year to catch up and invest in the services. Last year in the region of 235 places were provided and a further 170 were taken out of institutional care services. The figure on which I will be focused in the coming weeks in negotiations on the Estimates is the need for 400 places. The Deputy mentioned 27 on a priority 1 waiting list for Cope Foundation services. I have come across this figure in St. Michael's House and other services. The ballpark figure for which I will be pushing is 400 new residential places.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. That is a new figure. Certainly, I was unable to extract such a figure by way of parliamentary questions. It informs us that there is some level of co-ordination between the HSE and service providers. The Minister of State should get an answer to the question of how many are on waiting lists if he does not already have the figure. He has said there is an annual requirement for 400 places. The HSE should contact each service provider. It appears that waiting lists are administered at the level of the service provider. Therefore, the HSE should contact all service providers and pull together the data for the numbers on waiting lists. The Minister of State referred to 8,300 residential places. That is the current number of places and they are taken. The figure does not erode in any way the waiting lists. Given that the waiting list is almost 170 for one service provider alone in Cork, the figure nationally must be in the thousands.

I wish to bring it back to the example I gave. The family in question have been trying for two years. The parents are in their mid-70s and struggling. I acknowledge that they receive a respite care service when they most need it, which is appreciated. However, when it comes to a residential placement, they have been told by the service provider and the HSE that there is no hope because their daughter is not at priority level 1. Priority level 1 status is afforded to drastic cases where both parents are deceased or where a sole carer is incapacitated in some way. Essentially, they are cases where the HSE has no option but to step in and provide care.

I call on the Minister of State to do more digging on this issue. He will receive support from my party when it comes to the budget negotiations on it. I have a personal interest in it and I am keen to see more progress being made. We will support the Minister of State, but he needs to get more information from the HSE through the service providers.

I again thank the Deputy. I agree absolutely that we have to receive accurate data and up-to-date information, as I know from visiting the services. I visited the Cope Foundation where I had a two-hour session with the people there to discuss their particular needs. We have increased the funding for the foundation in 2018. Is it enough? The answer is absolutely not.

Let us go back to the core issue of focusing on the need for more residential places. We need to focus on a particular cohort of families where the parents are in their 70s and 80s and the adults being cared for are in the 40s and 50s. These are the people who need places. The Deputy referred to the waiting list of 170 at the Cope Foundation. That is an accurate figure based on my experience in talking to staff and parents in Cork.

I will appreciate the support of the Deputy coming up to the negotiations on the Estimates. We need to ensure we will receive 400 new places this year to try to deal with the issue. My plan and objective as Minister of State is to try to have services from the cradle to the grave for all children with disabilities. We have come through a big debate in recent weeks on the rights of women. I am also pushing on the rights of people with disabilities. We need to ensure services are in place for them. We need to build a new system that will respect people and look after senior citizens who are doing a fantastic job. In the meantime, I see respite care, the carer's grant and other supports as stop-gap measures. They do not address the real issue. We have to face the reality. We need to focus on providing in the Estimates for 400 new places at a minimum. I would appreciate any support in that regard. It will be among my priorities in the coming weeks.

Cultural Policy

I am a little disappointed that the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is not present. I respect Ministers of State and do not generally have a problem with them, but there is not even a Minister of State present from the specific Department, which is somewhat disappointing.

A number of weeks ago in Cork, over the course of a glorious sunny bank holiday weekend, there were three sold-out Ed Sheeran gigs. The effect on the city was tremendous. The place was vibrant and hopping and had a festival atmosphere. In the midst of it all, the people of Cork got a glimpse of what a world-class event centre, as envisioned and talked about for so long, could deliver for the city and county. They got to see what it could do for local businesses, night life and so on in the city centre. The concerts went off without a hitch and the extraordinary potential and good that could come to the city from an events centre could be clearly seen. Unfortunately, when the conversation turns to having an events centre in Cork, many people roll their eyes. There is a sense of whether we will ever see one and whether it will happen, as opposed to when it will happen. That is because we have had false dawn after false dawn, delay after delay and missed deadline after missed deadline. BAM won a competition in late 2017 for €20 million in State funding from national and local government for an events centre. At the time it was estimated that the project would cost €50 million. The cost has since soared to €75 million to €80 million.

We heard that work was due to start in the summer of 2015, late 2015, after Easter 2016, late 2016 and so on. In February 2016 the Taoiseach turned the sod in the teeth of a general election. That is now almost universally accepted as being a complete stunt and nothing more. It is two years and four months since the sod was turned and as of now nothing, not even a brick, has been laid for the events centre. No planning has been finalised and there is no final design. A total of €633,000 has been spent without a brick having been laid.

The head of BAM, Mr. Theo Cullinane, accepts that will be tight and has even indicated that his company is willing to step aside for another contractor, notwithstanding the fact that it is fully committed to the contract. As such, the date on which this episode became a high farce was a long time ago. The Tánaiste was on local radio yesterday to inform us that the Government is fully committed and the project will be delivered. That has been the tune, I am sorry to say, for quite some time. Everyone hopes it will be delivered, but progress has been exceptionally slow.

I recognise that some of the responsibility for this project lies with other parties, including Cork City Council and BAM, but the application for additional funding of €10 million is with national Government. Processing that application is one of the key steps to moving forward. It appears, however, that the application process is tortuously slow. The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan, informed me in January that, on 27 September 2017, Cork City Council made an application to her Department for a further grant to assist with the development of the project. She said the Department was assessing the application but that there were complex legal issues of state aid and matched funding to be considered. She said the Department was engaging with the local authority on those issues. The application for additional funding is itself dragging on. It has been with the Government for nine months. We were told three months ago that the issues had been resolved in principle, but we have no white smoke or certainty as to when we will get the grant.

My questions to the Minister of State are simple. Where is the Government decision on additional funding, when will it be made and when will final agreement on the additional funding be arrived at?

I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan, who is in the Seanad dealing with legislation. The project raised consists of the design, construction and operation of a new multifunctional event centre in Cork city with a capacity of approximately 6,000 persons. It is envisaged that the event centre will be capable of accommodating a wide range of events including concerts, festivals, family entertainments, arts, cultural, sports, exhibitions, conferences and trade shows. The project is led by Cork City Council with the development company BAM having been selected by the council as the preferred tenderer. BAM, in turn, has engaged international events company Live Nation as the preferred operator. The project is ultimately being developed and managed by Cork City Council. This means that Cork City Council is ultimately responsible for its delivery.

A service-level agreement has been signed between the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Cork City Council setting out the terms and conditions for the granting of €12 million. The Department has already paid €1 million to Cork City Council. In addition to the €12 million provided by the Exchequer, Cork City Council itself plans to contribute €8 million to the project. When the tender was awarded to BAM by Cork City Council in December 2014, the total projected cost of the Cork event centre was €50 million. The latest financial projections provided by Cork City Council to the Department indicate, however, that the cost has increased to a significant extent. Last autumn, Cork City Council wrote to the Department seeking additional funding of €10 million for the project from the Exchequer. This would bring the Exchequer contribution to €22 million and total public funding to €30 million.

The development of a major new event centre in Cork city centre is very exciting and very much in line with what the Government is seeking to achieve in the context of balanced regional development and sustainable urban development under Project 2040. In the context of the application for additional funding of €10 million, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht must, as the sanctioning authority, ensure the project is robust, complies with the public spending code and will deliver value for money for the Exchequer. Due to its size and cost, this project has significant procurement, state aid, legal and matched funding complexities. The important thing is to ensure that the project is delivered in accordance with relevant legal and value for money requirements. I understand the Department is in discussions with the relevant stakeholders, including Cork City Council and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, with a view to progressing these considerations as a matter of urgency.

The Cork event centre is a Government commitment. It underlines the Government’s commitment to culture. The new centre will constitute a substantial addition to the cultural offering in Cork city and county when it is complete.

While the Minister of State is probably unaware of it, there is a Twitter account with a significant following in Cork which archives and catalogues the sorry history of the events centre. When the account became aware that I was raising this matter this afternoon, it tweeted “Standing by to be underwhelmed by the answer”. I must acknowledge that the account was right. I am rather underwhelmed myself. In fact, the answer is in three different fonts and has the distinct look of something dusted down from elsewhere and tweaked a bit.

This whole matter has gone on far too long at every stage already. Everyone knows that. However, I find the fact that the Minister of State is not even in a position to tell me when a decision will be made on this specific grant application very concerning and simply not good enough. Is the Minister of State even in a position to give us a date for a decision? There is less and less faith in the process and uncertainty is growing. The Government can restore some confidence and certainty in the process by making a decision on this and stating clearly when it will issue. Reports in the Irish Examiner following on from questions from my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, highlighted the fact that there were issues with the licensing agreement on the initial stream of Government funding of €12 million. Can the Minister of State say whether the issue of the original €12 million as well as the €10 million will be dealt with as part of the same decision? Will a decision be made on both these matters as soon as possible? Can the Minister of State give us a date?

On the issue of the €12 million, I will have to ask the Minister, Deputy Madigan, to provide the Deputy with a response. I am not in the Department and I do not know. On the application for €10 million, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht share the important role of ensuring there is value for money for the taxpayer and that the project is delivered. They are engaging in that process. The process does not have a timeframe of itself. What is clear, however, is that the Government remains committed to the delivery of the project.

We have been hearing that for three years.

The Deputy is hearing it from me for the first time today. The Government is committed to the delivery of the project. When the process of evaluation is completed, that will be announced. It has not been dropped or put to one side. However, there are a series of checks and balances which are the regular processes that any application for grant aid from the State must go through. This particular application is unique. Nothing like it has been done in the State previously.

It is unique all right.

When those processes are complete, it will be announced to the Deputy and the people of Cork. They should rest assured that the commitment to building the project remains as strong as it was in 2014 when Cork City Council awarded the tender to the victorious party.

Election Posters

I am grateful that this matter was selected as we spent our Friday last week dealing with this issue and the outrage of many voters at what they saw as the flagrant violation of the law with regard to electioneering near polling stations. There are two issues here with which we need to grapple. The first is the law prohibiting the display of election posters within 50 m of a polling station. Obviously, there were many instances last week where a massive array of “No” posters appeared overnight in greater proximity to polling stations than that. However, there was a complete failure on the part of the Garda, local authorities or the returning officers concerned to take any action.

It was ironic in my area where the local authority early on in the campaign jumped the gun and took down a load of posters and then apologised for that, on the days of the election and the count its officials were nowhere to be seen and did not answer their phones. Residents rang and asked them to come out. Similarly, the Garda did not take any action either.

I am wondering what we can do to enforce the law. Can we have clarity on where the polling station is? Is it the table or the desk where the voting is or is it the entrance to the building, and have we given any thought to getting rid of posters? Particularly in this current climate of the damaging nature of plastics, we should be moving to a scenario where it is regulated, as in other European countries where, for example, one might have one big billboard in a communal area where people can go in a town or village on which everybody puts up their posters. Something has to be done about the blight on our landscape.

The other issue that caused even greater outcry was what could be deemed to be a devious manipulation of the election rules and an inappropriate display of religious iconography in close proximity to the polling stations. Many of our voting stations are Catholic schools. One would expect to see some symbolism in a Catholic school. However, the reports we were receiving went way beyond this, involving the strategic location of religious iconography in order to, as residents put it to me, “influence the vote”. For example, in Garristown, a rural part of my constituency, residents were outraged. In 40 years voting in the same location, they had never seen anything like it. There was literally an altar that they had to pass on the way in. In Booterstown, we received reports of a religious statue placed at the entrance. On the Navan Road, where residents normally walk in through the main door of the school, they were diverted around to a side entrance and they had to pass a display.

In Galway, a resident found a Bible on the polling booth. He was getting his ballot paper and when he objected to the two women, who said, “Sorry about that”, he went to the garda. The garda agreed that should not be there but an hour later when his wife voted the same Bible was still there. The gardaí did not want to know. The returning officer did not want to know.

In Sallins national school, the same occurred. Residents were very unhappy to have to go pass a wall full of hand-drawn pictures of the Virgin Mary. When a resident contacted Kildare County Council, it sent them to the Garda. The Garda sent the resident to the Referendum Commission, which stated it was nothing to do with it and sent the resident to the national presiding officer.

There were so many accounts from different parts of the country that it could not have been a co-incidence. There were just too many. I have never heard that previously. When, in Garristown, for example, the residents said to me there is a perfectly good gym hall where there would be no imagery, and asked why did they not put the desks there, it seemed to be quite strategic. That seemed to me to be a manipulation of the law.

I am wondering whether the Minister is looking at any way in which we could regulate this and ensure that this would never happen again.

I thank Deputy Clare Daly for raising the issue, which is of interest to us all. As well as voting and participating on Friday, watching social media I would have seen some of the reports the Deputy mentions.

The primary role of the Department in electoral matters is to provide an appropriate policy and legislative framework for a modern and efficient electoral system. Within that framework, local returning officers in each constituency are responsible for all matters in connection with the actual conduct of elections and referendums, including the selection, appointment and training of polling station staff in accordance with the relevant provisions of electoral law.

Under electoral law it is an offence to interfere with or obstruct or impede an elector going to or coming from, or in the vicinity of, or in, a polling station.

Electoral law also prohibits canvassing in any form in the polling station, in the building containing the polling station, in any grounds attached to, or in the curtilage of, the building and within 50 m of any entrance to such grounds or such building, or within 50 m of its curtilage.

It prohibits any form of canvassing, including congregation or loitering by persons, display of posters or distribution of leaflets or cards. It also prohibits the use of any loudspeaker within the area in which the prohibition applies.

Guidance issued to local returning officers by the Department in advance of electoral events advises that they should ensure that presiding officers are aware of these provisions and of their duty to ensure that they are complied with within the polling station, the building containing the polling station, its grounds and at any entrance to the polling station or grounds. In particular, presiding officers should have checks made through the day to ensure that the prohibitions are being observed.

The Department’s guidance further advises that the presiding officer should also ensure that posters are not displayed within the polling station or the building where it is situated, or its grounds or on the railings or walls of the grounds.

The enforcement of these provisions is a matter for An Garda Síochána. The presiding officer is advised to co-operate with the gardaí and ensure, as far as possible, that the provisions are complied with in the polling station and its grounds and should bring any breaches, whether within or outside the grounds, to the notice of the Garda.

Further to that official response, I have been aware on many occasions over the years of situations where posters are too close and upon being brought to the notice of the presiding officer in the stations and gardaí, they have always been removed. That is the law. That should have been implemented on this occasion.

According to reports I received from across the country, generally speaking, there was positive action taken to remove posters that were within that 50 m curtilage. In relation to iconography and the broader issue of where polling stations should be, the legislation places the responsibility quite clearly on the local returning officer to decide on the location as well as the staff and the training. However, it has been the case over the past few years, and I believe it should continue to be the case, that in places where a suitable non-school facility exists, for example a community hall, there has been a growing tendency that those facilities are used now more than they would have been in the past.

I made a few phone calls around the country and it is not only a rural issue. In parts of certain large urban communities, primary schools tend to be located in situations where they are easily accessible and sporting facilities or community halls do not tend to be as evenly spread throughout urban areas and certainly not throughout the broader rural community.

The points the Deputy makes in relation to the choosing of polling booth and polling station locations are issues that must be brought to the fore again with returning officers, in terms of directives and circulars from the Department. Broadly speaking, while there were incidents around the country, in particular in relation to postering, the referendum seems to have been carried out in a full and open fashion.

The Minister of State has exceeded his four minutes.

We will be taking on board some of the Deputy’s suggestions with regard to training staff in the future.

There are a couple of issues. The Garda, in a number of instances in my area of Rivervalley, when called, did not remove the posters. The garda who was called in Galway over the presence of the Bible did not ensure that the Bible was removed. Even though it was recognised that it should not have been on the table, it was not removed.

The interpretation of the legislation was that the 50 m was not from the entrance of the building but to the desk buried in the middle of the building. Had the gardaí interpreted it correctly, they would have removed them. They not only did not remove them but did not even understand the law, and the returning officer did not either. We cannot have a repetition of that. It was regrettable.

There needs to be considerable training of returning officers. I have no problem with schools being chosen - they are a good location. The point is there has to be an instruction to the school that if it is allowing its facilities to be used, we cannot have obvious religious symbolism in a sensitive issue such as this. Particularly in the instances in my area, it could have been avoided. The school could have been used. The Catholic iconography in the school could have been protected in its locations where they normally have it. The two did not need to conflict. It was quite clear there was a deliberate conflict here. Even in my polling station, the school shares the carpark with the church. One drives in to the church and then turns right to the school. There was a car strategically parked in the carpark with a sticker on the back, stating “Vote No.” One could not drive in to the carpark without seeing this car that was there all day.

We need to look at the regulations and state that it is not just posters. Our returning officers need to be far better equipped and the schools and locations that host this important part of our democracy have to be told that it is not on. I would be very grateful if the Minister of State could relay the fact that we need to revisit the regulations and the education of returning officers. They are getting paid for the job, so they should at least know how to do it properly.

My concluding remarks are to thank the staff across the country who ensured that this referendum and elections happen smoothly enough in an Irish context. I take on board the Deputy’s point, however, on making it clear to the presiding officers what the rules are on postering and iconography. The Bible issue was mentioned a lot in social media posts. The presence of a Bible is merely for people to make an oath if they so wish to affirm their identity. They do not have to use the Bible either but it is a generally accepted mode used in many other-----

It is not supposed to be on display though.

It is not supposed to be on display. I do not think the rules themselves need to be changed very much but I think there needs to be a thorough exercise on ensuring that those who are operating them on the day are fully aware of what the rules are. I take that on board completely. We will try to endeavour that before our next electoral outing, which should be later this year, that such training can take place.