Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire Stáit as teacht isteach agus éisteacht liom tráthnóna. At the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, the Government took immediate action and for that I give credit. Very early on, the issue of seasonal workers came to the fore, particularly in those areas of the country and the sectors of the economy that are traditionally seasonal in nature. We can look in particular at hospitality and tourism, where in many parts of the country the season runs from St. Patrick's Day or even Easter in cases through the summer to various points in the autumn, perhaps finishing in late September or Hallowe'en, with some going to Christmas. There are large parts of the industry that do not function for the full length of the year.

In addition, the events industry and other sectors would be in a lull in January or February, as very few festivals take place then and there would not be as many events. Much of the industry in these areas starts on St. Patrick's Day. Under the rules of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, if a person was not employed in January, February and March, there is no entitlement to support through the scheme for workers who had never worked in those months but rather worked in later months of the year and earned their living that way.

As well as a sectoral effect, this has caused a major geographic effect, where a disproportionate piece of the economy in places on the west coast of Ireland depend on this seasonal tourism. These are places like Daingean or Killarney and up the west coast through County Clare, into County Galway through Clifden. Connemara and the islands would be very familiar to the Acting Chairman. We can then go up through County Mayo to Donegal. The reality is that unless immediate action is taken, many of these industries and businesses in the hospitality sectors and all the spin-off enterprise supplying them might not survive. That is not through any fault of their own but through a lack of support.

This afternoon, we debated at length the issue of microfinance. The latter is useful in its own right but which does not fill this gap. For many of these businesses, borrowing money is not a solution. We need to hear that the temporary wage subsidy scheme will first be extended for at least a year for those industries that will not recover for at least that time. It should be available to those who can demonstrate a pattern of seasonal employment every year; in other words, businesses should be eligible for the scheme where they hire people in the spring but do not have them in January, February or March. Within the hospitality sector, we need the cap on the restart grant to be eliminated as this is an equivalent to three and a half bedrooms in a hotel, and no such hotel exists in the country.

My time is short and I hope the Minister of State will be able to tell me that the Government, even at this belated stage, will make an announcement and will not leave these vital industries high and dry. I hope it will not leave us in such a position that when tourism returns, we will find that some of our best assets are no longer functioning.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and the general issue of supports for business in the hospitality sector. He also flagged the matter of seasonal workers, which is certainly on our agenda as well.

As has been referred to by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and other Ministers, the programme for Government promises to bring forward a July jobs initiative to support our economy and help restore employment. Our focus is on supporting the viability of businesses and getting people back to work as quickly as possible in all sectors, including the vital hospitality sector. I cannot confirm what will be in that stimulus but it will come in the next couple of weeks. We will certainly enhance the offerings we have had so far as we are very much committed to supporting businesses in restarting and growing through job creation. We had a good and lengthy discussion on that earlier today and last night.

Helping small and medium enterprises is essential, given their pivotal role in the economy and employment. The July stimulus will extend, enhance and add to existing measures, totalling €12 billion in supports for businesses affected by Covid-19 that have already been announced. These measures include direct grants and supports, including the temporary wage subsidy scheme referred to by the Deputy. I am very conscious of the point he is making on seasonal workers and we will certainly focus on it in our work over the next couple of weeks as we bring forward the stimulus package.

There is also a €250 million restart grant fund and the Deputy is seeking changes to it. There are also liquidity supports, such as 0% financing for six months from Microfinance Ireland. This House passed the required legislation for that earlier and I hope it will go through the Seanad tomorrow in order that we can get on with the work relating to the fund. There has been a rates waiver from local authorities and the warehousing of tax liabilities by the Revenue Commissioners with respect to small and medium enterprises.

These supports are predominantly focused on our small and medium enterprises, which have been hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. As stated in the programme for Government, it is planned that the July jobs initiative will set out a path for the future of the temporary wage subsidy scheme. That will deal with the length it will be extended, if it is extended, and also deal with who can access the scheme.

The most important action from the Government was to try to ensure employees were not laid off and they did not lose an all-important link with an employer. Experience demonstrates that maintenance of the link with an employer is critical to the prospects of a person recovering and resuming employment. The temporary wage subsidy scheme achieves this objective but there are issues around this connected with seasonal or part-time workers and so on. These are all being examined.

In addition to the wage subsidy scheme, the Government introduced a new payment, the pandemic unemployment payment, to help individuals who were laid off. These supports and others are now being reviewed in the context of the July jobs stimulus and the economic recovery plan, which will be brought forward around budget time in October. These are key components of the programme for Government and I expect that further announcements will be made in due course. I know Deputy Ó Cuív would like me to do that tonight but it is best that it comes forward in the overall stimulus package in the weeks ahead. The issues mentioned by Deputy Ó Cuív relating to support for temporary seasonal workers are very much part of the considerations for the future of the wage subsidy scheme, and rightly so.

As the public health restrictions are eased, the challenge for the economy, SMEs and all businesses is evolving. Work is ongoing on how best to continue to support employers in the more medium term, including consideration of support for temporary seasonal workers and new hires. Also, I spoke earlier about new start-ups because people might change career during these times.

Since it was introduced in March, more than 65,900 employers have registered with Revenue for the temporary wage subsidy scheme and more than 58,600 employers have availed of the scheme, which is almost one third of all employers from 2019. More than 567,600 jobs have been directly supported over the period and many more indirectly. That is considerable coverage and it is noted that the value of payments made to date is nearly €2 billion.

Changes have also been made to the scheme to allow additional flexibility in the case of lower paid workers to increase the level of subsidy they receive, for workers returning from maternity, paternity and adoptive leave, and for apprentices who were engaged in a period of off-the-job or block release training in February of this year. The update and the need for the wage subsidy scheme will continue to be monitored as the public health restrictions are eased and the economy continues to recover.

My final point is on the restart grant, which was launched on 22 May 2020. The scheme was devised in recognition of the fact that micro and small businesses were particularly vulnerable to the economic effects of Covid-19. To date, there have been applications for €130 million in grants and just over €71 million has been paid out so far. There is another €17 million in the pipeline to be paid out this week.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The restart grant is being paid very promptly, and that I welcome, but it was obviously devised with manufacturing type businesses in mind. Whatever happened, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport did not make its case very well because rates are a major part of the overheads of any business in hospitality - hotels, restaurants and so on. The one thing we are absolutely certain about is that for as long as there is social distancing, these businesses, even though they will be open, will not be able to operate and will not be as profitable as they were previously. We have to reduce overheads. The restart grant, which is a rebate of the previous year's rates, is a very obvious first start but we need to lift the cap because it is out of sync with reality in the hospitality industry.

If we consider tour buses and so on, they will be limited in the number of passengers they carry. We need to look at the sectors that will have long-term restrictions on their ability to trade. Rather than forced unemployment, is it not much better to have people working and to make it economic to have extra staff, perhaps with a smaller turnover? That is where, again, we are a little late. There is no point crying over spilled milk but we need to have an immediate decision on the temporary wage subsidy scheme and it needs to continue for constrained businesses that cannot go back to business as usual. It needs to continue for as long as two constraints exist. One is the physical constraints because of health advice and the other is the business constraints because in terms of tourism, and this goes way beyond the tour providers, there are no foreign tourists here this year and we know people elsewhere are very reluctant to travel anywhere abroad. We find the same as regards people leaving the island. We need to deal with those issues.

I welcome the fact that people who booked holidays abroad had their deposits guaranteed. I find it hard to understand, and the Minister of State might address this, why tour operators who were taking the deposits of people coming into the country did not get the same guarantee on their deposits.

Deputy Ó Cuív rightly raised the tourism and hospitality sector. With regard to any further targeted measures specifically aimed at that sector, in March 2020, a dedicated tourism recovery task force was established made up of leaders of various sectors of the industry who will work together to deal with the many challenges ahead. It is specifically tasked with identifying measures required to enable Irish tourism to recover from the devastating effects of Covid-19. Naturally, the work of the task force will feed into the stimulus plan in July as well as the long-term recovery plan in line with the budget in October. We welcome any comments or suggestions in that regard. When he addressed the House yesterday on the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Bill, the Tánaiste asked anybody who wished to do so to bring forward suggestions or ideas. We will tease these out and they will feed into the plan. Work on the July stimulus plan is ongoing in the Department and other Departments.

The Deputy rightly identified some of the issues with the existing schemes that might affect the hospitality sector. All the existing schemes and all the efforts we have made in response to the Covid-19 outbreak are being reviewed and checked with a view to identifying changes we could make to enhance them. I will certainly feed into that review the issues the Deputy raised tonight. If he has any other suggestions, we will happy to feed those in also.

We are conscious that we have committed over €12 billion of taxpayers' money to supports. We also know, as does every Member of this House, that will not be enough. We need to add to that and we are very much committed to doing that. A package will be brought forward later this month. We will build on that and we look forward to working with Deputy Ó Cuív and all those who represent the hospitality sector on bringing forward long-term plans because the recovery will not be immediate in some sectors. We can make immediate interventions, which will help these sectors to survive, but we need to commit to this in the long term and we will do that. I look forward to working with the House in that regard.

The second Topical Issue matter is in the name of Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh. As the Deputy is not in the Chamber, I will move on to the next matter.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, to the House and wish her well in her post. This debate is about Shannon Airport, specifically the detrimental impact Covid-19 has had on its operations. There has been a 96% reduction in passenger numbers in Shannon Airport since March. Passenger numbers are likely to be 70% lower than last year. Cork and Dublin airports will have a combined reduction in passenger numbers of 40%. Shannon, therefore, has been exponentially impacted by Covid. I seek a number of measures. An aviation task force is about to produce its final report. Will the Minister of State indicate when she expects to receive that report? The report will be made public and I ask that she act on it. Arising out of that report, I would like to see a specific task force report for the Shannon Group, specifically Shannon Airport. We have unique difficulties to overcome in Shannon. Coming from Galway, the Minister of State will understand that Shannon Airport is critical to the western seaboard. The area has the largest number of multinational companies outside Dublin. I want to see supports provided for the development of routes outside Dublin. Shannon Heritage has submitted an application for supports and it should receive funding. Some 230 staff in Shannon Airport who have been told that a voluntary redundancy package is available are extremely worried about their future. We want action and supports for Shannon Airport.

I wish the Minister of State the very best with her new portfolio. I plead with her to urgently intervene in the case of Shannon Airport. The airport is facing an unprecedented crisis and has been disproportionately hit by the Covid pandemic and the resulting grounding of planes. We are in a fight to ensure the solvency of the airport, retain jobs and protect the mid-west economy that is heavily reliant on Shannon Airport.

Passenger figures at the airport have dropped by 98% since March. The place is like a ghost town. On Monday evening Ms Mary Considine, the CEO of the Shannon Group, announced that a series of pay cuts and staff cuts were on the way. I consider this move by management to be rather premature. The aviation recovery task force is due to report to the Government in the next ten days. On 20 July we will see the green list of countries to and from which travel restrictions will be eased.

Last night I met with the Taoiseach in his office to discuss the matter urgently. I am now expressly asking the Minister of State to intervene. I ask her to engage directly with the airport's management and staff unions to offer some clarity and reassurance regarding the future of Shannon Airport, its workforce and the many industries and employees that depend on its existence.

I also wish the Minister of State well in her new portfolio. Shannon Airport is much more than just an airport. It is the driver of economic activity in the mid-west and west. The airport was struggling even before the Covid-19 crisis. Aviation is an industry that is highly exposed to the effects of Covid-19. Shannon Airport faces significant challenges. Traffic has decreased by 96% since March. Aer Lingus still has not returned to the Shannon-Heathrow route. United Airlines has announced that it will not return to the airport. Without warning, a letter from management has been circulated to 230 staff members. There was no consultation with the unions or the workforce. The letter outlines far-reaching cost reduction measures.

I welcomed the setting up of the aviation recovery task force. It is of critical importance that this task force acts to the benefit of Shannon Airport. Our country needs a balanced aviation policy that will benefit Shannon Airport. I plead with the Minister of State to roll up her sleeves in the interests of aviation in this country and back Shannon Airport.

I thank the Deputies for raising this very important matter with me. As an island nation, Ireland is particularly dependent, both socially and economically, on air connectivity. Aviation plays a critical role in our economy. More than 140,000 jobs are supported by the air transport sector in Ireland. The air transport industry, including airlines and industry supply chains, is estimated to support a share of Ireland's GDP worth €8.9 billion. Approximately 6.8% of GDP was supported by air transport and foreign tourists arriving by air in 2018. Spending by foreign tourists supports a further €8.7 billion of the country's GDP. Ireland is also a significant global player in the area of aircraft leasing, an industry which contributes a further €541 million to the economy and supports almost 5,000 jobs.

Successive Government policies and the national aviation policy have recognised and supported this contribution. They have pointed in particular to Ireland's reliance on international connectivity to secure its competitive international position. The current policy has been highly successful and aviation in Ireland has seen strong growth in recent years. However, as we all know, the Covid-19 crisis is having a significant impact on the sector. Irish airports and airlines are fully exposed to the dramatic downturn in activity. Operations shrank to a small fraction of the normal level of activity, resulting in significant cash flow problems. Airlines and airports have had to restructure their businesses significantly in response to the crisis, and many are availing of Government supports. The Shannon Group has been severely impacted by Covid-19. I acknowledge and thank the company's management and staff for their commitment to keeping the airport open and keeping passengers and staff safe during this very difficult time.

We can all agree on the importance of Shannon Airport to Ireland and to the mid-west in particular. This is acknowledged in the national aviation policy, which recognises the strategic importance of Shannon to the connectivity of the mid-west and its importance as a gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way. Unfortunately, in the challenging circumstances faced by the Shannon Group, management have had to take difficult decisions to ensure the future viability of the company. I understand the company has been engaging further with employees this week on further measures that must be taken to assist the company's recovery.

I do not underestimate the impact on employees of these changes, which are deemed necessary to enable the Shannon Group to secure the future of the airport so that it will be well placed when the sector recovers from this crisis. Deputies will be aware that in response to Covid-19, the Government has put a broad range of supports in place to help mitigate the effects of the crisis. These include the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme, of which many companies in the aviation sector, including the Shannon Group, are availing. The Shannon Group has asked for a range of supports from the Government to help mitigate the impact of Covid-19. These are being considered. My Department recently approved €6.1 million of emergency funding to complete the airport's hold baggage screening project. The Department continues to work closely with the Shannon Group to ensure that the company, including Shannon Airport, will be well positioned operationally to contribute to the post-pandemic economic and social recovery.

The impact of Covid-19 on the aviation sector has been severe. The sector will continue to be impacted as long as international air travel is restricted on public health grounds. The Government is acutely aware of the matter and suitable policy and financial responses are being developed. The final report of the aviation recovery task force will be important when finalising proposals, given the expertise and industry insights it will reflect.

I thank the Minister of State. I wish to follow up quickly on a few things. A large number of people in my constituency of Limerick City and in north Tipperary work at Shannon Airport. The Minister did not make reference to Shannon Heritage in her response. More than 300 people are employed there during the peak season and 145 are employed year round. If a proposal comes from the Shannon Group, will the Minister consider providing funding to ensure the Shannon Heritage sites are kept open all year round?

Second, the programme for Government refers to providing funding for route support and looking for flexibility in state aid rules in discussions with other EU member states. Will the Minister of State commit to considering funding for Shannon Heritage? Will she commit to the provision of funding for route support? The Aer Lingus route from Shannon to Heathrow is still not up and running, which is not the case for Cork or Dublin. It is absolutely critical that the aviation recovery task force report is acted upon and that funding is put in place to enable Shannon Airport to operate. A more specific task force will be needed for Shannon Airport itself.

I thank the Minister of State. Many airplanes are gathering dust on the apron of the runway at Shannon Airport. I understand that public health guidance is preventing them from taking to the skies. However, we need to know why there are still many inbound and outbound flights at Dublin Airport and Cork Airport but virtually none from Shannon. Any open air links in and out of this country must be spread evenly. There is a lot more to this country than the Dublin economy.

I hope the Minister of State will intervene with respect to Ryanair's refund policy. I use the words "refund policy" quite loosely. These days there are Ryanair flights carrying single passengers. This is absolutely crazy. When people seeking to follow Government advice against international travel phone Ryanair to cancel their bookings, they are told by management that the planes are in the sky and whether to fly is the passenger's choice. This flies in the face of good consumer practice. Some passengers are being charged €600 or more in administrative fees to change their flights.

I must insist that any funding that the aviation recovery task force awards to the Shannon Group must be fully conditional on the company keeping the Shannon Heritage sites open throughout the autumn and winter months. The Shannon Group management plans to shut these sites at a time when we are desperately trying to attract tourists to the region for staycations. It makes no sense whatsoever to shut these iconic sites when we are trying to satisfy the needs of a very buoyant domestic tourism market. I hope the Minister of State will expressly intervene in this matter. We need all of the recommendations of the aviation recovery task force to be acted on immediately.

I join my colleagues in pleading with the Minister of State to ensure that the Shannon Heritage sites remain open all year round. If such a proposal comes from the Shannon Group, I ask her to support it with the necessary funding.

It is also important that the State should step forward and provide the necessary state aid to keep the airport operational and to facilitate capital expenditure works. We need a balanced regional policy for aviation if we are to stop the galloping, runaway horse that is Dublin Airport, which has a monopoly on air travel into our country. I plead with the Minister of State, who is from the west of Ireland, to buy into this effort and deal with the situation. A very congested Dublin Airport is not good for the country. We must try to spread those passengers out to Shannon and other airports in the post-Covid era. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

I have listened very carefully to what the Deputies said. I take all their comments on board, particularly those concerning the Shannon Heritage sites. As somebody who represents the west of Ireland and whose home is only 40 minutes down the road from Shannon Airport, I completely understand its strategic economic and social importance to the region. I propose to undertake a thorough examination of the airport's future viability and sustainability, including restructuring measures, financial supports and any other measures that may be necessary and appropriate as part of a wider review of Shannon Group. I will be in a position to do this once there is further visibility of the extent of the damage caused by Covid-19 to the group's strategic and business outlook and its funding position.

I plan to revert to the Government with recommendations on this issue in due course. I will take into account the strategic importance of Shannon Airport in the context of the national and regional development of aviation policies. I will be meeting with the task force for aviation recovery this week, whose membership includes the chief executive officer of Shannon Airport. Deputies can be assured that I am taking this issue very seriously and will work with all the stakeholders to ensure we have a viable aviation sector. I thank the Deputies for their comments, which will greatly assist me in my role.

Special Areas of Conservation

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and wish him well in his new portfolio. I look forward to working with him. This is the second opportunity I have had in this House to raise the issue of the bog slide on Shass Mountain in Drumkeeran in County Leitrim. I raised it with the Tánaiste last week, when he told me that in situations like this, where this is a disaster, the Government will normally step in to offer support. This is surely a disaster and it has now become an emergency. Many people who live in the area are asking where the support from Government is because they have not seen or heard anything in that regard. I have visited the site twice, the second occasion being last Friday evening when I went there with my colleague, Deputy Fitzmaurice. We visited the point on the mountain where islands of trees were emerging from the forestry and sliding down the side of the mountain. It was incredible to see it.

It is difficult to estimate the numbers but we are looking at the movement of some 300,000 or 400,000 cu. m of peat and bog. The bog slide continues down the mountain for several miles and stops within 200 m of two family homes and not 50 m from the Diffagher river which then goes on to flow into Lough Allen. Several homes are in danger and one house already has about 9 in. of bog at its back door. Vast swathes of land are being completely destroyed. The only thing holding back half the mountainside is the Dawn of Hope Bridge which was built in the late 1800s. It is absolutely astonishing that this bridge is still standing and holding back thousands of tonnes of trees and bog. We are facing an emergency and there are real fears that the bridge will not hold. Urgent action must be taken to reinforce it and try to stabilise the bog slide. That is the immediate need. People in the area, especially those whose homes are in danger and those whose land is being destroyed, need to know, nine days after the situation emerged, that they have not been forgotten.

I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, well in his new role. I visited the site in Drumkeeran with Deputy Harkin and observed the damage she has described. I want to make clear that no turf has been cut on this steep blanket bog. The damage we are seeing has happened followed incessant rain and action must be taken to address it. I spoke earlier today to the CEO of Leitrim County Council, Lar Power, who has RPS Consulting Engineers doing up a report on the situation on Shass Mountain. If the bridge to which Deputy Harkin referred collapses, there will be serious problems.

The Office of Public Works needs to get involved without delay and funds must be given to the county council to ensure it can cater for the works that need doing. A working group must be put together as soon as possible to deal with this emergency. Farmers in the area have put in for the basic payment scheme, the areas of natural constraint scheme and the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS. The bog is sliding down the steep mountain and spreading out and destroying their land. These are small family farms whose owners are working in the difficult conditions that naturally arise in bogland areas. They deserve help in this emergency.

We need the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the OPW, the council and the fisheries and farming bodies to come together and work to put a fund in place. The Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine needs to reach out in the first instance. This problem will not be cleaned up overnight and it will not be solved tomorrow. The Department needs to offer reassurance in respect of any inspections undertaken over the next four to five years for the areas of natural constraint scheme, GLAS and other environmental schemes. That is the first thing that needs to be sorted. The roads in the area will also need rectifying.

Deputy Harkin and I spoke last week to an elderly woman and some of the other lovely, salt-of-the-earth people who live in this area. They are frightened that if the bridge at the top of the mountain collapses, nothing will stop the bog from coming down. Local knowledge suggests that there was a lake that disappeared years ago located where the trees have started moving. There are large volumes of material that need sorting out, but the only thing that will really sort this problem out is a proper plan and the money to implement it. Will the Minister of State ensure the different bodies get together to work out a plan? There is no point in scratching our heads for a month until more rain comes and the bridge at the top of the mountain collapses. We will be in trouble then because there are several houses at risk.

I thank Deputies Harkin and Fitzmaurice for their good wishes and for bringing this matter to my attention. I can give a response from the perspective of my Department and the agency within my remit, which is the National Parks and Wildlife Service. As Deputy Fitzmaurice noted, however, there are several agencies involved.

The legislation underpinning the protection and conservation of nature includes the Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2018 and the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011. Natural heritage areas have been designated under the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. The EU's bird directive and habitats directive provide for the protection of certain habitats and species across the Union, giving a framework for specific measures to be taken to target areas of concern in each member state. In essence, the 2011 regulations transpose these directives into national law and provide for the nomination and designation of special protection areas, SPAs, aimed at the protection of threatened species of birds, and special areas of conservation, SACs, aimed at protecting other animal species and habitats.

Ireland is an EU stronghold for blanket bogs, which provide essential ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and water regulation, as well as harbouring many important plant and animal species. Under the habitats directive, Ireland has identified 50 special areas of conservation for the protection of blanket bog and there are 73 blanket bog national heritage areas. These SACs include lowland and mountain blanket bogs, predominantly along the western Atlantic seaboard, but also widely distributed on upland areas. Many of the SAC sites identified for the protection of blanket bogs are extensive and include complexes of other habitats such as dry heath, transition mire, acid grasslands, rivers and streams. Protected species found there include dunlin, golden plover, whooper swan, red deer, otter and freshwater pearl mussel. Blanket bogs, together with other peatlands, have formed in the Irish landscape since the last ice age and, together with remnants of primeval forests, are some of our oldest surviving ecosystems.

In November 2019, the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department was awarded €12.4 million in funding under the EU LIFE programme for an EU LIFE integrated project entitled Life Wild Atlantic Nature which aims to protect and restore blanket bog and associated habitats. The project seeks to improve the conservation status in the special area of conservation network of blanket bog. The project start-up has been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but is scheduled to take place over nine years and will be undertaken with the consultation and involvement of local landowners and communities.

Boleybrack mountain was nominated for designation as an SAC in June 2003 and is afforded protection under the 2011 regulations. It comprises an extensive upland plateau situated to the north of Lough Allen in County Leitrim and is dominated by active mountain blanket bog and wet heath.

I was very concerned to hear about the bog slide affecting the community in Drumkeeran, County Leitrim. The site at Shass Mountain is in Boleybrack Mountain special area of conservation. Officers from the National Parks and Wildlife Service have been to the site to investigate the extent of damage to the SAC. Initial findings indicate that the bog slide originated within the southern section of Boleybrack Mountain SAC, along the southern flank of the forestry plantation. The land where the slide originated is now very unstable and further slippages may occur.

The volume of peat loss appears substantial, given the amount of land affected downstream. A significant amount of peat from within the SAC has slid into the headwaters of a stream which is a tributary of the Diffagher river which enters Lough Allen. The peat material has been carried up to 5 km and deposited within the flood plain along the distance. A drone survey or equivalent may be needed to fully assess the scale of the damage.

I understand that Leitrim County Council is currently the lead agency dealing with the incident. The Office of Public Works is in contact with engineers in the council and providing advice as required. In addition, the forestry inspectorate of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Coillte have been on site since the event and have examined it in detail.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I know he has his own portfolio. He referred to the birds directive and the habitats directive. I am very familiar with both directives but the species under threat in the context of this disaster that is heading into an emergency are the people who live in the area and those whose lands have been destroyed. I hear what the Minister of State is saying regarding having people on the ground looking at the situation and assessing it, but I speak to people from Drumkeeran every day and they have heard nothing. They know that people are looking at the situation, etc., but they want to see action. They want to know that their homes and lands are protected.

The focus may be on protecting the habitat. If we do not do something to stabilise what is happening in the area, the habitat will be destroyed as well. People need to know that they are the primary focus. The Minister of State knows as well as I do that if that is not made clear, they will start to see the habitats directive and similar legislation in a negative context. It is not negative legislation and was never meant to be such, but people must come first.

We need support to be provided to Leitrim County Council. As my colleague, Deputy Fitzmaurice, stated, we need some sort of task force to be set up to ensure people can have faith that the institutions of the State will help them when a disaster occurs.

I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, but we were expecting this matter to be dealt with by the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW. I understand that the mountain is a designated special area of conservation, but there is a decision to be made. Are we going to sit and watch a bridge collapse - in fairness, bridges are neither the portfolio nor the responsibility of the Minister of State - if there is further rain and possibly more bog coming down the mountain with it? Are we going to stand by while, in the words of Deputy Harkin, the species known as people lose their lives? Rapid action needs to be taken on this issue.

Anyone listening to these proceedings who is familiar with the situation knows that the designation and the habitats directive and all that has damn all to do with this issue. This problem involves part of a bog sliding down a mountain onto people's land and around houses. People are frightened and roads have been destroyed. A large section of the bog could come down if the bridge in question, which was built hundreds of years ago - in fairness, it has held out mightily - fails. If it goes, we will be in trouble. Regardless of when the site was designated or whatever else was done with it, we must not have people with pieces of paper stating that an environmental impact assessment or another appropriate assessment is needed. This is an emergency for the people of the area and we need to begin working on it rapidly. A working group needs to be put together immediately to find solutions for the people of the area.

The commitments in the programme for Government demonstrate that the Government will be active in protecting our natural heritage and responding to the biodiversity emergency and drivers of loss. Investing in the restoration of ecosystems will have multiple additional benefits, including water regulation and purification and carbon sequestration. Sustainable land use management must be a key component of our work. The NPWS and the Department will continue to lead on this work.

I am aware of the great concern locally and nationally with regard to the bog slide. The NPWS and the Department will work with the other bodies to which I referred and continue to investigate and deal with the incident. The matter falls within the remit of my Department, but I am happy to work with Deputies Harkin and Fitzmaurice to establish a working group if that proves necessary. I am more than happy to visit the site and will keep the issue high on the Government agenda in order to seek a resolution. I will set up a working group if it is needed.

I am conscious that the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is in the Chamber to deal with the Topical Issue matter tabled by Deputy Ó Snodaigh, but he is not present and, as such, we will not deal with it today.

The Dáil adjourned at 7 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 9 July 2020.