Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Foreign Conflicts

I welcome the fact that we have the opportunity to raise this issue today. The expression "words fail me" is totally inadequate to describe how I felt when I heard President Trump say earlier that the Kurds did not help the US in Normandy in the First World War, so why should he defend them now. These are the same Kurds who have fought alongside the US against ISIS for the past five years. This Turkish offensive is called, ironically, Operation Peace Spring. We know the history of the suffering of the Kurdish people. I do not think any people have suffered as much as the Kurds. Promises were made to them by the western allies after the First World War, which provided for a Kurdish state, but that was abandoned. Instead, the Kurds were given minority status in various countries, including Turkey where they have suffered appalling human rights violations. They have never had their own permanent state.

The Kurds were defending their enclaves in northern Syria against ISIS. Their Peshmerga forces defended parts of Iraq against ISIS when those areas were abandoned by the Iraqi army. We know about Kobane and Raqqa and other areas that had been taken over by ISIS, where the Kurds have been steadily driving ISIS out. We also know what happened in those ISIS-controlled areas. It appears that President Erdoan's agenda is driven by the need to boost his own popularity after the mayoral defeat in Istanbul. Those who suffer the most are the civilians, most of whom have already been displaced from their own countries. We also have the issue of ISIS fighters who were captured in the area. Will they be released? If so, that will create new opportunities for them.

President Trump also commented to the effect that the Turks and the Kurds have been fighting each other for centuries, as if it were inevitable that there will be another conflict. We know that 11,000 Kurdish people have lost their lives in the conflict. The agenda has always been to displace the Kurds and there have been many examples of that. This looks like an attempt to annihilate them.

President Trump has reminded people that Turkey is a big trading partner of the US. Turkey is hosting Syrian refugees and has received €6 billion in that regard. However, it is looking for more money. Is it using this conflict as a playing card? In the middle of it all, the Kurdish people are suffering.

I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that what is unfolding in north-east Syria only compounds the misery of the Syrian people and the persecution of the Kurdish people. It has the potential to create more internal refugees in Syria. Some 60,000 people have already left the affected zone in northern Syria. In a quite incredible statement for a member of NATO and a President of Turkey, President Erdoan stated on Turkish television that he will flood Europe with millions of refugees if the European Union taunts Turkey regarding its interference in Syria. More than 500,000 people live within 5 km of the Syria-Turkey border. The Tánaiste will agree that foreign interference in Syria has created a quagmire of human misery. Some 500,000 people have been killed there in the past eight years. This is one of the worst civil wars humanity has seen. Given the events of the past three days and, in particular, the green light given by President Trump, it is ironic that the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, which were trained and armed by the Americans and were fighting ISIS, are now being battered by the Turkish military. This is a betrayal of the Kurdish people by the Americans. What can Ireland and the European Union do to address the situation?

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. It gives me an opportunity to put several things on the record. Recent developments in Syria are deeply worrying. Turkey's military action in the north east of the country will further undermine the stability of the region, which is still reeling from the costly battle against ISIS. It will also undermine prospects for a lasting peace in Syria and exacerbate civilian suffering in a country that has been devastated by war and population displacements for eight and a half years.

On 6 October, the United States announced a withdrawal of US troops from an area of north-east Syria close to the Turkish border ahead of a Turkish offensive into Syrian territory. Subsequent statements stressed that the US is not involved in, and does not support, the operation. Turkey commenced unilateral military operations in the area on 9 October, with the stated aim of preventing what it asserted was the creation of a terror corridor along its border.

I am particularly concerned about the humanitarian impact of a military escalation and further displacement of civilian populations. In a statement issued on 9 October, I stressed that the protection of civilians and respect for international humanitarian law must be paramount. I urge all parties to ensure unhindered, safe and sustainable humanitarian access. The position of the EU was made clear yesterday in a statement reaffirming that a sustainable solution to the Syrian conflict cannot be achieved militarily and calling upon Turkey to cease unilateral action.

There are long-term security implications implicit in the US withdrawal and subsequent Turkish incursion in northern Syria. The fight against ISIS made considerable progress earlier this year. Unilateral military action against groups which played a decisive front-line role in this fight clearly risks undermining that progress. The resurgence of ISIS remains a significant threat to regional and international security. I am concerned that these developments will lead to further instability and that ISIS could take advantage of the vacuum. It is imperative that terrorist fighters remain securely detained to prevent them from joining or rejoining the ranks of terrorist groups.

It is vital that the rights of the ethnic Kurdish population in north-east Syria are protected. The EU has confirmed that it will not provide stabilisation or development assistance in areas where the rights of local populations are ignored. The safety and protection of all civilians and respect for international humanitarian law must be paramount. We must call out situations where that does not happen. Military action in Syria also risks undermining the work of the UN in attempting to facilitate a negotiated end to the conflict and a political transition which meets the legitimate aspirations of all communities in Syria. I take this opportunity to reiterate Ireland's strong support for the work of the UN special envoy, urge Turkey to cease military operations and call on parties to engage with the UN-led process.

We know there are diverging opinions on the matter in the US. The EU has condemned the Turkish action but I understand that the ambassadors on the EU Political and Security Committee have not been able to agree a common position, possibly due to the relationship of Hungary and Turkey. How effective can the UN security council be in this situation, particularly with regard to the possibility of a country exercising a veto over any action to be taken? I acknowledge that the Tánaiste made a strong statement regarding humanitarian issues and the implications in terms of instability. I presume that he will reiterate those points at the EU meeting of foreign ministers on Monday. There is a need for action because otherwise the situation will worsen.

As Syria is moving towards peace talks and recovering from the humanitarian disaster there, the emphasis should be on the right of safe return for Syrians who left their country and not this pending disaster which will worsen.

This situation has the potential to escalate into a regional war. In terms of the geopolitics of the area, there is a significant Kurdish minority in Turkey as well as Kurdish minorities in Iraq and Iran. The history of the Kurdish people is one of absolute persecution. They have been bitterly betrayed by the Americans, although that is no surprise for the Kurdish civilians as the Americans have bitterly betrayed many people, having interfered in foreign policy.

One practical thing the Tánaiste can do is to summon the Turkish Ambassador to ask him whether he will take responsibility for the civilian deaths which are occurring on his watch. There is blood on his hands.

A collective EU statement has been issued. There was a delay in it being issued, which I understand was caused by Hungarian concerns regarding what was proposed. All 28 members have now signed up to a statement of collective EU position, which is very welcome. Several members of the UN Security Council have requested that the issue be formally raised before the council, which would be appropriate.

I have been to Kurdish cities in northern Iraq and to western Turkey, where many Kurds live. I met many community leaders there. The Turkish action has the potential to create significant tension in the area and the mass movement of people. That is why I was one of the first EU Ministers to issue a fairly strong statement on the issue. If I think it would be helpful to call in the Turkish Ambassador, I will do so. I am not sure what purpose it would serve immediately, but it may be useful to do so to try to understand in detail the Turkish perspective and have an opportunity to question it. I will have an opportunity to raise the matter at the Foreign Affairs Council next Monday and the General Affairs Council next Tuesday. I will be meeting many of my colleagues and am sure this will be one of the key issues under discussion.

Community Development Projects

I am glad to be able to speak about Huntstown community centre in the Dáil a couple of days after the budget. The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, is standing in for the Minister for Rural and Community Development, who could not be here today, unfortunately. I ask the Minister of State to understand that Huntstown is a very large community in Dublin 15. So far this year, the very successful Huntstown community centre has been used by over 68,000 people, which is a lot of people. I am sure the Minister of State is familiar with community centres in his constituency of Wicklow. Like many public buildings, Huntstown community centre has recently undergone a necessary audit of fire and building checks. This happened after a number of schools in Dublin 15 were found to have serious defects. Everyone, including the board of management, the day-to-day management of the centre, the manager of the centre and the manager of the crèche that is run from Huntstown community centre, wants the centre to operate to the highest safety levels. The people of Huntstown and Dublin 15 are entitled to no less.

The report on fire safety, structural safety and structural issues with the building is really concerning. It comes with a price tag of €250,000, which is not that huge in the context of the way the Government spends money. It involves making the building safe in terms of various materials and building practices which were not adhered to when a new addition was added onto the centre some years ago. The centre itself has been operating for almost 20 years. Along with the adjoining school, church and small set of shops, the community centre is the heartbeat of the community. The staff and management of the centre work very hard and are respected by the community for the contribution they make.

I ask the Minister of State and his Fine Gael colleagues, along with those in Fianna Fáil who are supporting them in government, to ensure €250,000 is made available to the community of Huntstown. Facilities like the community crèche are vital for families with young children. Many activities, including after-school events, take place at the centre. Many people drop into the coffee shop each day or each weekend. The traditional activities that are found in a popular community centre, such as dancing and art classes for older people, must be able to continue at Huntstown community centre.

In light of the seriousness of the reports that have been submitted, I have no doubt that the centre will face serious obstacles as it seeks to continue to operate as it operates now. The Government must be able to address this. It is able to help rural areas like the Minister of State's locality through LEADER funds. Some county councils take responsibility for community centres, particularly newer centres or centres in disadvantaged areas. People in Huntstown get up early in the morning in the manner advocated by members of the Government. They work and they contribute to their community centre. They are no less deserving than other communities of Government funding and support to ensure their much-loved community centre is able to continue. I ask the Minister of State to give hope and reassurance to people in Huntstown that the Government will ensure such assistance is provided.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. The Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, was meant to deputise for the Minister for Rural and Community Development, but she has had to attend to a domestic matter.

The Minister, Deputy Ring, is aware of the situation in Huntstown community centre and knows how important the centre is to the people of Huntstown. Community centres are the cornerstones of many communities around the country. They bring people together in a safe space for social, educational and informational purposes. We need to do everything we can to keep them open and in good condition because they help to tie communities together. Like Deputy Burton and every other Member of the House, I regularly visit community centres in my role as a public representative. It is important that facilities where people gather are safe from a fire safety perspective and safe in every other way. I understand that issues of this nature have arisen at Huntstown community centre. I am informed that the centre is doing everything in its power to address these issues and to work through all the requirements. The importance of ensuring facilities are safe for everyone who uses them cannot be overstated.

Community facilities are funded from a range of sources across various Departments and agencies. Some of these supports are provided by the Department of Rural and Community Development. The Department has provided funding of €184,000 to Huntstown community centre in 2019 under the community services programme, which supports more than 400 community organisations to provide local services through a social enterprise model. Funding is provided towards the cost of a manager and a number of other positions. In total, the community services programme is allocating €553,000 to Huntstown community centre from 2018 to the end of 2020. Separately, the Department of Rural and Community Development funds the community enhancement programme, which helps community groups to improve their facilities. In 2018, Huntstown community centre received €3,500 towards building upgrades. The local authority is involved in administering this programme.

I understand that Fingal County Council is aware of the fire safety issues with Huntstown community centre, which is owned by the local community. Officials from the council are arranging to meet the manager of the centre and local councillors to explore the supports that can be offered. I know this type of issue is not confined to Huntstown community centre. Funding sources that are available across the Government can be used to cover issues like this. LEADER funding can be used for facilities outside the five main cities. The rural regeneration and urban regeneration funds are also in place. The community enhancement programme is available for minor works that may be needed. I urge people in the community to use their meeting with the council officials to explore all of the options available to them.

That is a very disappointing response. If this community centre was situated down the country, it would be funded generously for important community activities. The LEADER programme, which was mentioned by the Minister of State, is good for providing such funding. As we know, part of that funding comes from the EU. If this community centre was in a disadvantaged area, the county council would probably take responsibility for funding it. This is a community-owned community centre. It is part of the hub of this large community. There are sources of funding, such as the Dormant Accounts Fund, which the Government can use. I have raised them privately with the Minister. I am rather disappointed that the note from the Minister, as read by the Minister of State, does not mention the Dormant Accounts Fund, which may be used precisely for purposes like this.

I am pleased that officials from the county council are going to meet people from the centre. That is valuable. We are talking about a diverse community with a large number of young people, including children and secondary school students. Approximately 60 languages are spoken by the children who attend the school next door to the community centre. The staff in the centre, led by the manager, go out of their way to make everyone in this vibrant and integrated community feel welcome in the centre. The manager of the crèche goes out of her way to help to look after the young babies and children of the area.

We are talking about a vital community resource and, in capital terms, a relatively small sum of money, €250,000, to address the fire safety and roof issues.

There were storm warnings last weekend. Many of us were afraid, given the nature of the warnings which had been issued and the quality of and problems with the roof, that had the major storm materialised it would have done much more damage than was the case. If this work can be done quickly, money would be saved. I asked the Minister of State to advise the Minister, Deputy Ring, that it is not enough to tell urban communities where people get up early, go to work and pay taxes that if they lived down the country the roof would be funded but because they live in Dublin it cannot be fixed. The dormant account funds can be used to supply funding for the centre.

I will ensure that the Deputy's very persuasive arguments are brought to the attention of the Minister, in particular the availability of the dormant accounts fund.

I am aware that the rural and urban regeneration funds and community enhancement programme are possible sources of funding. The Minister asked his officials to keep him appraised of the situation, following the engagement between the local authority, councillors and the centre manager. Deputy Burton is obviously more aware of the situation than I am, but the Minister is investigating the best possible measures to fund the centre to ensure it is safe. Everyone accepts that is an imperative.

Road Projects Status

I welcome the Minister. This is an old hobbyhorse of mine because the problem has not gone away. The Minister may recall that in May 2017, I and some of my colleagues, including Deputies Moynihan and Niall Collins from Limerick, raised the need for the M20 to be put in place via Mallow, Buttevant, Charleville and Patrickswell past Croom. The issue is being debated. Consideration is being given to rerouting the M20 via the N7 to Cahir and connectivity to the N24, namely, the Waterford to Limerick road. The local authorities concerned have their own priorities.

In October 2017, the Taoiseach confirmed in the House that he would ensure the M20 route selection process would involve a corridor from Cork to Limerick via Mallow, Buttevant and Charleville. We thought that the project had been agreed. The Minister and his Department have provided money for a study to be carried out. The issue has raised its ugly head again in the past couple of months. I am concerned that the lead authority is Limerick County Council, which seems to be in agreement with the Tipperary and Waterford local authorities in terms of giving priority to the N24 and using it as a route to add to the N7 to get to Cork.

The Southern Regional Assembly compiled the regional spatial and economic strategy for the southern region for the next ten or 20 years. It stated that the options available include the M20 route to Cahir and connecting to the N24, which is a major concern. I thought everything had been buried, but when I met regional statutory bodies like the IBEC section for the southern region and CIT, they raised their concerns with Oireachtas Members that the M20 route selection encompasses many alternatives.

I want some confirmation that the Minister, under the guidance of the Taoiseach, will give solace and comfort to the people of Mallow, Buttevant and Charleville that they will have a motorway. I know the Minister will tell us we have to change our strategy because of climate and green energy initiatives and so on, but there is no point comparing us with other countries which may be more advanced in terms of infrastructure and development. As we know from the document on regional planning guidelines from the South Western Regional Authority, an important aspect of mobility within the region is the upgrading of principal routes. This is a principal route. Mallow is totally congested. I will put my hand up and admit that when my party was in government in the 1990s and 2000s we got distracted in terms of Mallow and the bypass. We went for major projects such as the M20. The project went as far as consultation and route selection, and submissions were received in 2008 but because of the recession it was, understandably, pulled.

The economic positives, including access and so on, for the south-west region must be taken into account. The Minister is forgetting about the people of west and north-west Cork and Kerry in terms of connectivity. He must remember that the route is made longer by going via Cahir. I ask that the Department and Minister provide an update. He is able to have his say with other Departments. I ask that he be responsible for his Department and ask Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and all of the local authorities in the Munster area to acknowledge that the preferred route has to be via Mallow, Buttevant, Charleville and Limerick.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue, which is close to his heart and location. I will try to reply in a way that gives him some reassurance.

I need to explain that as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding for the national roads programme. Under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, the planning, design and operation of individual national roads is a matter for TII in conjunction with the local authorities concerned, in this case Cork and Limerick county councils.

Within the overall context of Project Ireland 2040, the national development plan has been developed by the Government to underpin the successful implementation of the new national planning framework. This provides the strategic and financial framework for TII's national roads programme for 2018 to 2027. In the ten years covered by the plan, over €11 billion will be invested in the overall road network. The M20 Cork to Limerick proposed project is in the national development plan as a project to be advanced through planning, design and on to construction.

The scheme could include the provision of over 82 km of motorway between the existing N20 in Blarney, County Cork, and the existing M20 in Patrickswell, County Limerick, with an online motorway service area, depending on what is required by the public spending code. Planning and design work for the proposed scheme is under way and technical advisors were appointed in March 2019 by Limerick City and County Council to progress this work. A revised project appraisal plan was prepared and approved by my Department on 12 August 2019.

Early works, including traffic modelling and constraints studies, are under way. I understand that the project team is currently appraising the alternative corridors within the study area that might be considered as feasible options required by the public spending code and statutory process. These include other road based options as well as public transport based alternatives. This work will continue for the next 18 months approximately.

The expected benefits of the project are: improved connectivity for the Atlantic economic corridor; safety improvements; bypasses of Charleville, Mallow and Buttevant; and wider economic benefits for the region. I also understand that TII has provided an allocation of €2.15 million to Limerick City and County Council for the project this year. This scheme is at an early stage of development and, therefore, it is not possible to indicate the timeframe in terms of construction proceeding. The latter will, of course, be dependent upon the satisfactory conclusion of the statutory planning approval process.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He hit the nail on the head at the beginning of his contribution. He has responsibility for overall policy. Policy means that he can dictate economic growth in the areas concerned, along with priorities. In other words, he can say that the policy is that we need to ensure the route is from Cork to Limerick via Mallow, Buttevant and Charleville. In case there is any confusion, I keep reiterating this. The Minister went off course when he stated that those involved, be it TII or, possibly, the national roads design office teams of the various local authorities, are looking at alternative corridors. How far east of the M20 will these alternative corridors be because the M7 is east of the M20? That is my concern. When can we expect this issue to be put to bed? Regarding consultations, one could have people in Mitchelstown looking at a proposal for M20 and asking what they have to do with the latter.

The economic benefit has been set out. We need a purpose-built western corridor that does not just run from Cork to Limerick but goes all the way to Galway. The Minister acknowledges that he got the Gort motorway completed, which is welcome news. I hope we can eventually bring that motorway all the way from the west to Donegal. I know about the emphasis on green energy transport models but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the south west is lagging behind when it comes to infrastructure. The last major built infrastructure project in the south west involved the flyovers in Kinsale and Wilton in Cork city. With the exception of these, we have been left at a disadvantage. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the section on transport in the Budget Statement mentions the progress involving the M20 even without mentioning the Dunkettle interchange, which also has a major impact on the development of Cork city and county and the southern region with regard to accessibility and mobility of transport.

I ask the Minister to tell his cohorts. As he said, he is responsible for policy while they are responsible for planning. Being responsible for policy means that he can tell them it is a policy issue and to initiate the progress of the design from Cork to Mallow to Buttevant to Charleville.

I would not like to in any way suggest that the Deputy was making inappropriate proposals but he must be clear about this. The Government is committed to this project. That is not in doubt and I do not think he is questioning it. To raise this issue in the context of the south not being adequately funded in terms of major projects is rather contradictory. I would have preferred it if the Deputy had got up and said that the south feels that it is not getting the necessary funding or attention for roads. This is a major project. We are talking about €11 billion over a number of years. It is a significant commitment to Cork and Limerick regarding the necessity for speedier contact between those two cities and bringing them closer to each other. That commitment is there. That is Government policy, as I outlined earlier.

What I will not and cannot do is interfere in any way with the planning process. I will not direct them regarding the findings to make when they come up with their case and decide on the best route to take and any other planning issues involved. Two sets of approvals are required in respect of projects such as this one. The Deputy is well aware that one is approval of the business case and a cost-benefit analysis of the project while the other is approval by An Bord Pleanála of an application for development consent. The project is at a very early stage. I stress that any timeframe for the successful and timely delivery of any project depends on obtaining the necessary consents at various critical stages, including at the route selection, detailed design and tender stages. I know the Deputy is concerned, as he should be, about the detail but he should also welcome the major project that is at hand. We are moving it forward as quickly as we can. Consents are given by those bodies without any interference from us.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 15 October 2019.