Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Hospital Accommodation Provision

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the very important issue of three community hospitals in Donegal - St. Joseph's Community Hospital in Stranorlar, Lifford Community Hospital and Ramelton Community Hospital. This matter has been ongoing for some years. It first arose in January 2016 when the then Government thought it was unveiling a capital plan for hospitals. We discovered at the time that there was no money in the capital plan for these three hospitals. The Government realised in the course of the general election campaign that something had gone wrong and that was not what the Government intended. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, who was a Minister of State at the time, stated that the matter was so serious that the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, would begin an investigation. The investigation has now gone on longer than any tribunal and we have never been informed of the outcome.

There have been numerous announcements by Ministers of State over the time, including Deputies Jim Daly and McHugh, but there has been very little progress. We had a meeting here last year and it was promised that we would meet the Minister for Health, the Secretary General and the chief officers of the HSE but that never happened. The Minister of State at the Department of health, Deputy Jim Daly, attended that meeting and gave what he thought was good news but nothing has happened since. It was stated at the time that there would be regular contact with the action group but there has been none.

We want to stop the nonsense and put in place a strategy to proceed with the development, refurbishment and extension of these three hospitals.

I am delighted to be sharing this matter with Deputies Gallagher and McConalogue. It is a pity that the Minister for State, Deputy Jim Daly, is not here. He called the people of Donegal strange last week. He stated that he wanted the opportunity to answer this question and, when we give him the opportunity to do so, he is not here. It is a bit strange that he is not here to outline the future of the three hospitals.

This issue first arose three years ago. The HSE and Government stated very clearly that long-stay beds were to close at St. Joseph's and Ramelton and that the same thing was close to happening at Lifford Community Hospital. It is now three years later. Up to 2,000 people took to the streets last week and there was a packed hall of community representatives who wanted answers. They have been fobbed off for the past three years. The then Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, went on Highland Radio and other stations in Donegal to inform people about multimillion euro sanctioning of grants, yet we know that not a red penny was sanctioned for those projects at that time.

We need to put our money where our mouth is. The community will only believe that the old plan is in the bin, where it belongs, and that the future of these hospitals is viable when the funding is granted and refurbishment is carried out. Get rid of all the spin and let us deal in substance. Has funding been approved by the HSE for the upgrade of St. Joseph's and Ramelton in order to maintain long-stay and short-stay beds? What is the current position in respect of Lifford? That is a campaign that needs to be mounted and won because we need those beds in our community in Lifford to complement what we already have in St. Joseph's and Ramelton and what we will have in Letterkenny.

People across County Donegal are proud of their community hospitals. Those who work in them provide a tremendous service to people within their community. The last Government decided, in 2016, to close the long-stay beds in St. Joseph's in Stranorlar, Ramelton and Lifford and that they would not be reopened. It is only because of the work that has been carried out since then by the "Save our St. Joseph's" action group under the leadership of Fr. John Joe Duffy and community hospital action groups in Ramelton and Lifford that the Government has reversed its policy position on closing the three hospitals. We still do not have a hard and fast commitment from the Government on funding, or a start on the work at St. Joseph's and Ramelton hospitals that the Government has committed to in theory in order to bring them up to HIQA standards.

The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, was very sensitive when I raised the issue with him in the House last week. He claimed not to understand Donegal politics after I brought to his attention the march which was attended by Deputies Gallagher, Pearse Doherty and other public representatives and local community members in the Stranorlar and Ballybofey areas. The Minister of State and his colleagues, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, who is present, and the Minister for Health, need to show they will come forward and stop the types of false promises we have seen in the past and deliver the funding to ensure these hospitals are brought up to HIQA standards and those long-stay beds are secured for the future. We also need to increase the capacity of long-stay beds within our community hospital sector in Donegal in order to meet the demand that will arise in the years ahead.

I thank Deputies Gallagher, Pearse Doherty and McConalogue for raising this important issue, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health and older people, Deputy Jim Daly. Unfortunately, the Minister of State is unable to be here because he is attending an important meeting with senior officials about scheduled and unscheduled care and delayed discharges. He has asked me to convey his apologies to the Deputies.

The HSE is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including those at facilities such as St. Joseph's Community Hospital in Stranorlar, Ramelton Community Hospital and Lifford Community Hospital. Community hospitals are an essential part of our national infrastructure and we are determined to maintain our public stock. The standard of care delivered to residents in these units is generally very high but we do recognise that many public units are housed in buildings that are less than ideal in the modern context. However, without these units, many older people would not have access to the care they need. On that basis, we need to upgrade our public bed stock. This is the aim behind the five-year capital investment programme for community and nursing units announced in 2016.

This provides the framework to replace, upgrade and refurbish these care facilities, as appropriate. Significant work was undertaken to determine the most optimum scheduling of projects within the phased provision of funding to achieve compliance and registration with the Health Information and Quality Authority.

At a meeting on 7 November 2018 with public representatives and local delegations, the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, advised that the policy position to replace St. Joseph's, Stranorlar, and Ramelton community nursing unit had been revised. The HSE's social care directorate and its national capital and property steering group accepted recommendations from HSE CHO1 to retain and upgrade both facilities, in the context of future capacity requirements. This revises the original decision to replace the existing long-stay residential beds on both sites. It further revises the scale of the proposed new unit at Letterkenny from the original 130 beds to 110 beds. Importantly, the decision to revise the proposals was informed not just by the technical and feasibility studies on the physical infrastructure at these two sites but also a broader analysis of population projections and national planning norms carried out by the HSE.

The redevelopment of the Lifford unit on the existing site is not deemed viable. The need for additional beds and the potential to develop a new facility on a greenfield site will be reviewed further post-2021, when new census data are available and the capital programme has been advanced. The existing unit at Lifford will continue to operate in the intervening period. As the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, advised at the November meeting, he welcomes the community continuing to engage with the HSE at local level, as appropriate, regarding further ideas and proposals for community-based options that may be considered.

The Department and the HSE are engaged in a process to finalise the HSE's capital plan for 2019. In developing its capital plan for 2019 and future years, the HSE must consider a range of issues, including the expenditure that is contractually committed, the HSE's annual requirement for meeting risks associated with clinical equipment, ambulances and healthcare infrastructure and the total capital Exchequer funding required for major capital projects. The HSE's capital plan will determine the projects that can progress in 2019 and beyond and this plan is being finalised. Once the HSE has finalised its capital plan for 2019, it will then be submitted to the Minister for consideration.

I want to bring to the attention of the Minister of State the fact that approximately 1,000 people came out on 23 March, a cold spring day, to express their concerns, culminating with the meeting in the hotel. The issue is becoming muddier and muddier. I refer the Minister of State to his script, which is from the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. It states the HSE is still working on the plan for 2019 and also refers to expenditure on contractual commitments. There is nothing clear in it to state funding will be provided for any of the units in Donegal. I hope the Minister of State will bring it to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, that while he tried to impress on us that it was totally clear it would be moving in 2019, he also stated there were contractual commitments and annual requirements on meeting risks with associated clinical equipment. This is not clear. We are looking for a very clear and unambiguous statement that money will be provided for a design team to be appointed as quickly as possible. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has made it very clear, and I admire his honesty, that the decision was reversed. We know the initial decision was to close these hospitals at the expense of another. Where will the patients go if they must be discommoded while works are being carried out in these hospitals?

When we met at the beginning of November, we thought there was good news and we cautiously welcomed it. At least the old plan to close down the hospitals is gone officially but the problem is we have been told things over and over again by Ministers that simply are not true. Ministers told us on the radio that the answers given in reply to parliamentary questions from Deputy Gallagher and others were not accurate statements of events and that comments made outside the House are the accurate statements. People are saying, "show me the money". The problem is that not a penny has been sanctioned for the work to be carried out in Ramelton or at St. Joseph's. This is the issue. It is the start of April and it still has not been sanctioned. In December, the Cabinet met for three hours and sanctioned hundreds of millions of additional euro for the national children's hospital. For three years, people have been taken to the streets in Ramelton, in Stranorlar with regard to St. Joseph's and in Lifford and they have not got a bean from the Government in terms of a commitment. When will the project be signed off? Will there be a commitment in it that the design team can be allocated?

While it is welcome that the Government has revised its plans to close the three hospitals, in particular with regard to St. Joseph's and Ramelton until such time as we actually see the funding allocated to bring them up to HIQA standards, the Minister of State will forgive the people of Donegal, in particular in Ballybofey, Stranorlar and its surrounding area and Ramelton for not having faith in the Government. They need to see the works commenced, the plans designed and the funding allocated. I want to zone in specifically on the situation with regard to Lifford Community Hospital. The response from the Minister of State today, and the responses we received previously, indicate that the Government does not plan to upgrade the existing hospital on the existing site, that the Government does not see it as viable but that it has no plans to look until after 2021 at what the future might hold. Councillor Gerry Crawford in the area has done lot of work on this. He raised it as recently as the March meeting of the HSE's health forum. Again, he was told it will be 2021 before the Government looks at future plans for Lifford Community Hospital. I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the HSE to start to identify a new site in Lifford so work and planning can commence to ensure there is a community hospital and long-term beds in the Lifford area to serve the community there as well as the communities in Stranorlar and Ramelton.

I apologise that the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, cannot be here. I understand he was to respond to the Deputies last week but the debate was withdrawn. I will deal with the points raised. Deputy Gallagher spoke about the 1,000 people on the streets. Of course, we must listen to their views and I will bring his concerns to the Minister. His fundamental question on where those patients will go is very relevant.

With regard to what Deputy Doherty has said, we accept the old plan has gone. He said the local people need to see where the money is and when it will happen. It will have to be some time in 2019. The Deputy wants more specific dates and timelines and I accept that point.

The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, asked me to stress that St. Joseph's Community Hospital in Stranorlar and Ramelton Community Hospital will be redeveloped through the HSE's capital programme, while the potential for redevelopment in Lifford will be further reviewed after 2021, when new census data will be available and the capital programme will have been advanced. The national development plan provides for the continuation of the programme of replacement and refurbishment of community nursing units and long-term residential care facilities for older people. The Department has consistently stated that the HSE is responsible for the delivery of healthcare infrastructure projects and it is a matter for the HSE in the first instance to prioritise and plan projects, subject to available funding in the coming years. The Department and the HSE are engaged in a process to finalise the HSE's capital plan for 2019. The HSE's capital plan will determine the projects that can progress in 2019 and beyond, having regard to the total available capital funding and relevant priority of each project. All health capital projects at various stages of development, such as community nursing units in Donegal, are included as part of this process. Once the HSE has finalised its capital plan for 2019, it will be submitted to the Minister for consideration. Of course, I will bring back the points raised by the Deputies today, particularly on the new site in Lifford and all of the other concerns.

I am sure the Deputies will return with this issue when greater clarity can be had.

Ambulance Service Response Times

I call on the Department of Health to commit to providing additional ambulance fleets and personnel in the north west in order to reduce response times in the region. Unfortunately, lengthy ambulance response times are not unusual there. They are, however, unacceptable. People in rural areas are treated deplorably when it comes to access to out-of-hours health services. It is now evident that if more than one emergency arises at a time in the Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon area, our communities must wait up to two, three or four hours for emergency services. The lives of people in the north west are as important as those of people in cities or elsewhere in the country.

I accept that there are challenges in providing services in rural Ireland and that we cannot expect to achieve the same turnaround times as are experienced in urban areas. However, the response times in rural areas could be and need to be vastly improved. The waiting times for ambulances are too lengthy. The current situation in County Leitrim in that regard is totally unsatisfactory.

More and more ambulances are being called away to cover larger centres. The dispatching of ambulances from one county to cover another due to the lack of paramedics on duty at any one time, as often occurs with the ambulances assigned to Leitrim and north Roscommon, is totally wrong and leaves people highly exposed. Our ambulance service often deals with life or death situations but it does not have the capacity to deal with the call-outs it is receiving. Fatalities may be inevitable.

We need a new ambulance unit in Carrick-on-Shannon and extra personnel to manage the fleet there. People in rural Ireland are losing confidence in the ambulance service, which is a pity because, as all Members know, its staff are dedicated, committed and very helpful. I am sure that the families of several Members have called 999 seeking an ambulance - I know mine has. It is sad that the staff are losing confidence, but it would be very sad if the people who need the service also lose confidence.

The ambulance stationed in Carrick-on-Shannon serves south Leitrim and north Roscommon but at times may be as far away as Monaghan, Mayo, Tullamore or even Mullingar, leaving no ambulance cover in its primary area. It is very alarming that there are only ever two ambulances on call for the entire County Leitrim. Those ambulances may not be available if an emergency call comes in as they may be covering for other ambulances in urban centres or responding to other emergency calls. What is more alarming is the lack of action on the part of the Government, which seems unconcerned about this issue or the fact that elderly people may have to wait from two hours to five hours for an ambulance. People have contacted me with concerns and I have passed on those details to the HSE.

I am advised that there is no short-term cover available for ambulance staff, meaning ambulance cover may be dropped if staff members are out sick as the minimum required number of staff members would not be met. That is the sad reality. Ambulance staff work around the clock, with a 20-hour shift not being unheard of for staff in the north west. That is completely unsatisfactory and it is dangerous. I am sure the Road Safety Authority does not condone unsafe practices such as the hours being worked by ambulance drivers. I know exactly what I am talking about on this issue and the people who have been affected. The current practice is wrong. Those people are worn out.

Access to out-of-hours health services in County Leitrim is extremely limited. The HSE promised to implement measures in terms of new personnel, ambulances and first responder schemes in Leitrim and north Roscommon as advised by the 2015 capacity review that was published in 2016 for the National Ambulance Service. Some 24 new recruits to the ambulance service were passed out quite recently, but all of them were posted to major urban centres.

I welcome the opportunity to address the very important issue of the ambulance service in the north-west region on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I thank Deputy Scanlon for raising it. I am pleased to inform the House that 12 additional staff have been approved for deployment in the north-west region for 2019. These staff will provide additional emergency capacity to the region in the coming year.

The National Ambulance Service has furthered several developments in order to address the issue of response times and ambulance cover in the north west. In Border counties, the National Ambulance Service works closely with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service in order to provide a more responsive service for patients. An EU-funded pilot of a new community paramedic model of care in Border counties has been completed. Community paramedics safely and effectively provide care in Border counties, with a consequent reduction in unnecessary ambulance journeys to emergency departments and hospital re-admissions. On resources in the north west, under the first phase of the programme two community paramedics were assigned to Buncrana, County Donegal.

The capacity review published in 2016 identified particular difficulties serving rural areas such as the north-west region. It indicated that the only practical way to improve first response times in rural areas is through voluntary community first responders, CFR, schemes. The National Ambulance Service continues to work with local CFR groups across the region to enhance services. I am pleased to state that the Government is fulfilling its commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government to increase the number of CFR groups year on year. In the north west, 19 CFR groups are currently linked to the National Ambulance Service and 14 other groups there are in training to provide first response in emergency medical situations.

The National Ambulance Service has undergone a significant process of modernisation in recent years and there have been several important service innovations and developments. A single cohesive strategic plan for ambulance services, entitled Vision 2020, has been developed by the National Ambulance Service. It sets out the actions necessary to implement the various recommendations and to address the range of other demands facing the ambulance service.

The national emergency operations centre has been established and is the location for the receipt of emergency calls and dispatch of emergency resources. The National Ambulance Service has visibility of all available paramedic resources and vehicles in real time, ensuring that the closest available resource is dispatched to an emergency.

Other recent developments include the development of alternative pathways to care. The "hear and treat" clinical hub went live in the national emergency operations centre in March last year. It diverts some lower acuity patients away from busy emergency departments and frees up emergency capacity. It is anticipated that such initiatives will help to improve the availability of ambulance resources nationwide, including in the north west.

In recent years, additional investment has been directed towards the National Ambulance Service. This year, its budget increased to an unprecedented €168.6 million, which will support it in continuing to deliver a high quality service throughout the country, including in the north west.

I welcome that 12 new recruits will be coming to the north-west region. The current situation could not be allowed to continue because it is neither acceptable nor safe. I have previously raised the first responder scheme in the House because it makes sense to roll it out in the north west. Fire fighters in Dublin are trained to paramedic level, meaning that paramedics are available 24-7. This should also be the case in the regions. Last year, vital discussions on this issue took place between the National Ambulance Service and the national directorate for fire and emergency management. I welcome the information provided by the Minister of State in that regard.

The capacity review published in 2016 indicated that community first responder schemes are a practical way to improve first response times in rural areas. I acknowledge that the Minister of State mentioned such schemes and I welcome that they are being considered.

With 12 new recruits being assigned to the area, it is important that a second ambulance be based in Carrick-on-Shannon in light of the demand in the area for services. As the population of the county is widely dispersed and because the ambulance based in Carrick-on-Shannon may be called upon to provide services to nearby centres such as Monaghan and, in particular, Mullingar, possibly to cover for an ambulance which may have been moved to Dublin, it is crucial that a second unit be based in Carrick-on-Shannon in the future.

Again, I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I accept he was one of the Deputies who was very involved in raising the first responder issue previously.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, I assure the House that the National Ambulance Service is focused on continuing to improve service in the north west and throughout the rest of the country. The improvement is being implemented through a multi-annual reform programme. Through the National Ambulance Service reform plan, Vision 2020, new developments are being progressed in order to continue to deliver a high-quality service. Recent developments, such as the new community paramedic model of care, will divert some lower priority patients from the busy emergency departments. I will inform the Minister of other issues raised by the Deputy.

Tourism Funding

I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, for taking this issue. It concerns Shannon Heritage and how it is enabled to run tourist attractions in County Clare, particularly Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. The latter is an important component of Shannon Heritage and attracts international and national visitors throughout the year, numbering up to 350,000 annually. Therefore, it is one of the leading attractions in Ireland. It is the jewel in the crown of Shannon Heritage. Shannon Heritage has a difficulty in regard to how it can fund the development of the attraction.

Shannon Heritage is part of Shannon Group, which consists of Shannon Airport, Shannon Heritage, Shannon Commercial Properties and the International Aviation Services Centre, located at Shannon Airport. Bunratty Castle and Folk Park is just one of the attractions that Shannon Heritage manages and develops. It also looks after King John's Castle, Limerick, Craggaunowen, County Clare, Knappogue Castle and Walled Garden, and Dunguaire Castle, Kinvara. It has expanded beyond the region to develop other attractions, including Malahide Castle and Gardens and the GPO Witness History heritage experience. Therefore, Shannon Heritage has a broad portfolio. It has to be commercially viable to exist. This is the difficulty. It has to generate income from its own resources, yet it is looking after many historical sites dating back centuries. It has to maintain and develop these attractions with income it generates with very little State support, particularly from the museum service. It is a custodian of historical sites but it is limited in its capacity to develop them. The Government, therefore, needs to recognise the cultural significance of the portfolio Shannon Heritage looks after.

Shannon Heritage currently has an €8 million development plan in conjunction with Fáilte Ireland. The former will provide €3 million and the latter €5 million. Shannon Heritage does not have the money for new acquisitions, yet it has to develop its own sites. I ask that the State play a more active role in supporting Shannon Heritage as a custodian of our historical sites, the treasures of our country, and develop them into modern tourist attractions. Bunratty Castle and Folk Park is running into difficulties and does not have a modern element. It needs to be upgraded to attract visitors.

Shannon Heritage is intimately connected to Shannon Airport. Through the development of Shannon Heritage sites, we can increase the throughput in the airport. As the Minister is well aware, Shannon Airport has the capacity to increase its numbers. It has about 1.8 million visitors at present, and this number could be increased to 4.2 million. Shannon Heritage is a component of how one can improve the number of passengers going through Shannon Airport. I would like the Minister to respond to these points.

I thank Deputy Harty for raising this important matter. I understood Shannon Heritage was flourishing and I believe it is flourishing. From what Deputy Harty is saying, I understand it needs more support, not only to be the custodian of the portfolio he has so eloquently described but also to develop and encourage more tourism and ensure greater numbers of tourists.

In line with its tourism development remit, Fáilte Ireland is responsible for developing and promoting the tourism potential of the various counties and regions of the country. It does this primarily in line with the relevant tourism experience brands, which provide the overarching context for related marketing, enterprise supports and tourism product development.

Having just debated another issue with me during Priority Questions, the Deputy is probably a little bit tired of me saying somebody else is responsible for what he feels I should be able to do. We have deliberately put in place State agencies to keep me and other Ministers semi-detached from the power to give grants and supports so they may be given in a way that cannot be interpreted as politically motivated. What I have to say does not mean there is disinterest on my part in setting policy, which I do, but it is qualified by the fact that my unwillingness to identify and give direct support to a project is because political motivation might be suspect and I might be thought to be yielding to pressure from the Deputy in doing so. God forbid that would ever happen.

The Deputy will also be aware that Shannon Heritage, one of the companies owned by Shannon Group, is also heavily involved in the operation of tourist attractions at Bunratty and in the surrounding region. Such attractions provide reasons for visitors to come to these parts of Ireland and for the Irish public to enjoy their own important sites and attractions. Accordingly, Shannon Heritage's ability to attract visitors to the region is an important driver for the tourism sector, which, as we all know, is a key employer in our rural economies. We are all indebted to Shannon Heritage for its contribution to Irish tourism and its enthusiasm and ability to attract visitors. Since Shannon Group's establishment in 2014 as a commercial State body, I understand it has undertaken a significant restructuring of the Shannon Heritage company, invested some €5 million in improving assets and heritage attractions, and managed to double visitor numbers over the same period. It is a good story.

I understand Bunratty Castle and Folk Park is Shannon Heritage's anchor attraction. Since 2014, I am informed that the company has invested around €2.5 million in upgrading the facilities at this site and has just commenced the planning phase for a major upgrade of the park, on which it has been liaising with Fáilte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority. In this regard, I am pleased to note that Fáilte Ireland awarded a stage one development grant of €200,000 for this project under its large grants scheme — for technical assistance support.

I understand that, in 2019, Shannon Heritage plans to continue to invest further in the heritage assets operated by the company, building on the work undertaken in previous years addressing the historical underinvestment prior to 2014. I am pleased to learn that the company is working closely in partnership with Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland — particularly with the visitor attraction teams working on the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East — in addition to the local authorities, to enable further growth to visitor numbers to the mid-west. I welcome the fact that Shannon Heritage is also collaborating with Clare County Council on its new tourism strategy. It is the first time a local authority has partnered with another State company to create a tourism strategy, one which is focused on the dispersion of visitors around Clare to benefit all areas. Working with all these partners, I am informed that Shannon Heritage's vision for the future is to be recognised as Ireland's leading operator and developer of tourist attractions, attracting 1 million more visitors annually by 2025.

We all have a lot to say on this issue and insufficient time to do so.

The Deputy has only two minutes in which to say it.

I understand that the Minister is involved in policy rather than the minutiae of developing tourist attractions. Since Shannon Heritage looks after so many historical sites, it involves the Ministry with responsibility for tourism.

It also involves the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and perhaps the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. The Minister might want to consider involving other Departments as part of a co-ordinated approach to how these historical sites are looked after by Shannon Heritage.

As the Minister has rightly said, Shannon Heritage is a commercial semi-State body, which means there are constraints on how it can access funding. The Rock of Cashel, which is a very popular visitor attraction, can attract funding from other streams, but commercial semi-State bodies are precluded from doing likewise. It is important to recognise that there may be a cross-departmental aspect to this matter. Shannon Heritage wants to concentrate on attracting visitors to the west and bringing them through Shannon Airport. A co-ordinated effort should be made to support the endeavours of Shannon Heritage, which wants to improve the quality of the product it presents to those who visit Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. I am not sure whether the Minister has ever visited this fantastic visitor experience, which needs to be upgraded. A co-ordinated approach needs to be taken across various Departments. Consideration needs to be given to how Shannon Heritage can access funding in order to cross-promote the other elements in its portfolio and deliver increased traffic through Shannon Airport.

Maybe the Deputy should invite the Minister to experience the delights of Bunratty.

I accept and thank the Deputy for his invitation. I recognise the success of Shannon Heritage in everything it has done to attract tourism to the area mentioned by the Deputy. I would hate the message to go out from this debate that something is wrong or something is afoot. I am sure the Deputy is right when he says that there is a great deal of potential to bring more people to the area in question. He has signalled that this could be achieved with the support of the Government. I will happily let Fáilte Ireland know the context in which this debate has been held and what the Deputy has had to say. He has made a very good case, particularly for the Shannon Heritage owned sites in the mid-west, which he argues are in need of a more attentive custodian or a better promoter.

I would like to point out one or two facts about Shannon Heritage which are relevant to this debate. I recognise that it has been successful. Last year, annual growth of 4% in visitor numbers was recorded across all the attractions operated by the company. Since 2013, visitor numbers have more than doubled across Shannon Heritage's eight daytime visitor attractions and four night entertainment experiences, including the world famous Bunratty medieval banquet. In 2016, the company's activities generated over 253,000 bed nights. I understand the Deputy's plea for a custodian. He has made the case for a possible link between the Departments of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Transport, Tourism and Sport in the promotion of Shannon Heritage. Both Departments have an interest in it. However, it would be a pity not to recognise the success of Shannon Heritage in promoting tourism.

National Parks

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, for taking this short Topical Issue debate. The Phoenix Park is Dublin's green lung. It is the people's park for the people of Dublin and indeed for people from all over Ireland. It receives significant numbers of tourists. It is one of the largest walled parks in a city. It is of vital importance to Dublin's environmental ecosystem. The Minister of State might not appreciate the degree of surprise in the community when a detailed document of just under 200 pages in length was published a couple of weeks ago without any advance notice to local organisations and local residents, who are very much dedicated to the Phoenix Park. I have a small copy of the document in question, which is dated October 2018 but was published very recently. People were given three weeks to submit their views on this complex document. Unfortunately, no copies of the full document were made available to public representatives of the neighbourhoods adjoining the park or to residents' associations. I persuaded the awfully nice parks staff to give me a loan of a copy. I know that a representative of the Navan Road residents' association has also got a loan of a copy. I do not know what has happened in the OPW, but documents like this have simply not been made available.

I have a number of suggestions to put to the Minister of State. They could make the whole process much better and lead to very good consultation between citizens and the people who have been putting forward these proposals. First, given that the two-week extension announced by the Minister is not enough, especially as the overall consultation period encompasses St. Patrick's Day and Easter, I suggest that the period be extended until the end of May so that this 200-page document can be examined in some detail. Second, I suggest that copies of this document be placed in libraries and community centres in the areas surrounding the park. This would give the public an opportunity to look at it. Third, I suggest that the authors of the study meet and consult the public, residents' associations and others who are interested in the park. The engineers involved in BusConnects, which was initially a computer desk-based survey, would confirm that the consultations which have been held in that instance have helped them to understand local geography and topography in various parts of Dublin. I think a similar approach should be taken in the case of the Phoenix Park.

I agree with the document's description of the OPW as one of the stakeholders in the park because the OPW has been looking after the park for many years. The document also suggests that the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is a stakeholder. I do not know where the Department comes in. The other stakeholder mentioned is Fáilte Ireland. The people of Ireland, including the residents of the areas of Dublin adjoining the park, are not mentioned on the list. Given that the Government is all about spin and communication, it should appreciate that the Phoenix Park belongs to us all. What is the Minister of State's vision of the purpose of this document? Where is the budget provision for it? There are many good proposals in it. I have advanced many of them previously.

Maybe we will hear what the Minister of State has to say about the matter.

Some of them, like the Magazine Fort project, have been undertaken or have been under way for a couple of years.

The Phoenix Park is Europe's largest city park, comprising 1,752 acres. It was first opened to the public in 1747 as a place of enjoyment for all the citizens of Dublin. Today, the park is enjoyed by 10 million local, national and international visitors each year. It plays a central role in the life of Dublin city. It is a sanctuary from the city, an important sports, recreation and public amenity and home to a range of institutions, including Áras an Uachtaráin, Dublin Zoo, the Garda Síochána headquarters and the US ambassador's residence. As the world's urban population doubles from 3.5 billion to more than 7 billion over the next 40 years, parks and open spaces will become even more critical elements in the creation of vibrant cities and healthy communities. Therefore, the Phoenix Park will be central to how Dublin city continues to evolve as a great place to live, work and visit. From the local to the global, the Phoenix Park is beloved by Dubliners and international visitors alike. This was borne out recently when it won various awards, including the Irish Independent best local attraction for 2019 and a gold medal at the 2018 world urban parks awards.

In 2018, with funding from its strategic partners Fáilte Ireland, the Office of Public Works, OPW, commissioned a review of the visitor experience in the park. The Phoenix Park visitor experience strategic review proposes a roadmap for how this amazing resource can make a greater contribution to the tourism economy through sensitive enhancement of visitor infrastructure, along with the preservation of its unique heritage features. In this plan, the OPW seeks to realise the park’s potential as one of the truly great parks of the world, while also ensuring the unique features which make up the park will be conserved and protected for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Through a competitive tender process, Denis Byrne Architects was awarded the contract to undertake the review. Its objectives and requirements were to review the future tourism development potential of the Phoenix Park, to prepare a development plan for the Phoenix Park visitor centre and to prepare a development plan for the Magazine Fort.

The draft Phoenix Park visitor experience strategic review addresses the first objective, namely, to review the future tourism development potential of the Phoenix Park. The review examines five zones in the park, considering themes of welcome, history and heritage, activity and well-being, as well as of identity, biodiversity and connectivity with the city in the context of the current and future potential visitor experience at the Phoenix Park. The report sets out 29 recommendations which, if implemented, would increase the park’s contribution to the tourism economy, while, at the same time, ensuring the unique character of the Phoenix Park is conserved and protected for the enjoyment of generations to come. All recommendations will be subject to an OPW review, funding allocation and the statutory planning process.

The second objective in the brief is to prepare a development plan for the Phoenix Park visitor centre. The existing visitor centre complex is over 25 years old. Up to 1.7 million visitors were recorded at the complex in 2018 and the existing facilities are no longer fit for purpose. A new visitor centre is required which will provide interpretation of the park, café, retail and welfare facilities. Sustainable transport and parking facilities will need to be provided to include buses, cars, cyclists and pedestrians. Any developments or redevelopments proposed will be subject to the statutory planning process.

With regard to the third objective, to prepare a development plan for the Magazine Fort, it is proposed to conserve the fort and open it as a living history experience unique in Dublin. As part of the review, Dublin City Council, Fingal County Council, Fáilte Ireland, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Waterways Ireland and Dublin Zoo were consulted. Currently, the public is being asked for its observations.

While the Minister of State’s proposed extension is welcome, it is entirely inadequate. In his response, the Minister of State never once mentioned the people of Dublin and the people of Ireland whose park this is. Instead, he spoke about development which includes retail. Why does the Phoenix Park need retail? It is our premier environmental and ecological gem. Is the Minister of State proposing that it will be turned into some kind of shopping centre for a visitor experience for people stepping off cruise ships? People around the park do not want that. We want artisan cafés which employ local people and use Irish products. We do not want large multinational companies dominating the significant tourism offering of the park. Neither do we want it to cancel out the rights of Dubliners and the rest of the country who use the Phoenix Park.

The Minister of State will know some of the many songs associated with the park such as the “Zoological Gardens” and what one is likely to see at certain times. The Phoenix Park is famous in Irish history. The Magazine Fort restoration has been under way for several years. I hope the Minister of State will manage to get the regular input of funding to restore this magnificent fort to be on a par with some of the French forts which people may be familiar with from their holidays.

I am a little concerned that the Independent Alliance has a bias against Dublin’s north and west sides, feeling that we are not posh enough for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, who is sitting beside the Minister of State. We value our park and we want consultation on its development. He will get nothing but positive input from the residents’ associations in Castleknock, the North Circular Road and Oxmantown Road.

I do not know to what side of the park the Deputy is referring. We now have a plan for the next 25 years but the Deputy claimed we are doing nothing. When we put forward a plan-----

I did not say that.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. I visited the centre on three occasions over the past two weekends. I have seen at first hand how the OPW gave the people proper consultation. We extended the process by two weeks and allowed for submissions until the end of next month. The Deputy claimed people cannot download the proposals. She is well aware that all people have to do is press a button.

It is 200 pages long.

The Deputy herself got a tour of the visitor centre twice, meaning she is aware of what is involved.

I am there twice a week.

She is very good at accusing us here. She has her people she can to talk to. I did exactly what the Deputy asked, namely, I extended the consultation process.

There is no comparing Dublin with the rest of Ireland. This park is for the people of Ireland. I want to set out a plan for the next 25 years which will make the park attractive for the people of Ireland and international visitors. I want to improve the visitor facilities there. I do not need a long-winded whip from the Labour Party which did nothing when it was in government but bring hardship and misery to people.

The first time we get a good facility put in place for the people of Dublin, the Deputy is criticising it. Shame on her.

The Minister has not behaved in an ministerial fashion. He has been offered consultation with the residents’ associations in the areas concerned.

We gave the opportunity for consultation and extended the time for it.

Clearly he does not believe in consultation.

If the Deputy’s party came back to this side of the House, it could do it.

Members please.