Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

1970 Arms Crisis

The events that became known as the Arms Trial convulsed the politics of this island 50 years ago. Some people came to believe that certain Fianna Fáil Ministers, along with a cabal of Irish Army officers, attempted to import arms for the IRA through Dublin Airport. A trial involving four defendants opened exactly 50 years ago today. All were acquitted. An account of these events, which was provided a decade later by the late Peter Berry, then Secretary General of the Department of Justice, made it clear that the Special Branch had a source inside the IRA who had access to the deliberations of the IRA's army council. Colonel Michael Hefferon, the director of military intelligence in G2 in 1970, knew the Special Branch had two paramilitary sources, one in the IRA and the other in Saor Éire.

In his 2016 memoirs, the Minister for Justice in 1970, Des O'Malley, revealed that the Special Branch had received a tip-off about the incoming arms flight at Dublin Airport that foreshadowed the arms crisis. The informer has now been identified as Seán Mac Stíofáin, a member of the IRA army council, in a new book to be published tomorrow, Deception and Lies The Hidden History of the Arms Crisis by David Burke. The author reveals that Mac Stíofáin exploited his position to create mischief for his arch rival, Cathal Goulding.

In August 1969, Mac Stíofáin convinced the Special Branch that the army council had struck a deal with the Government, led by the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, to assist a campaign of violence in Northern Ireland. This was untrue. In October 1969, Captain Kelly of G2 hosted a meeting of the citizen defence committees of Northern Ireland at a hotel in Bailieborough. It was called to discuss the defence of Catholic communities and the possibility of arms being supplied to them by the Government. The ranks of the defence committees including priests, lawyers, a former SDLP Minister, Paddy Devlin, as well as some IRA veterans. Yet, Mac Stíofáin portrayed the Bailieborough gathering as a gathering of the IRA in furtherance of Goulding's alleged links with Fianna Fáil. During November and December 1969, Mac Stíofáin told the Special Branch that Fianna Fáil was channelling funds to Goulding via Captain Kelly. This was also untrue.

As we know, the IRA split into the Provisional IRA and Official IRA in 1969. In March 1970, Mac Stíofáin, who joined the Provisional IRA, discovered that G2 was about to land an arms shipment at Dublin docks. It was destined for a monastery in County Cavan and earmarked for release to the citizens defence committees - not the official IRA - in the event of a pogrom. Even then, the guns were only to be released after a vote at Cabinet. Mac Stíofáin sent a Provisional IRA unit to hijack the weapons. In the event, the arms were not on the boat and the hijack was called off at the last minute. This demonstrates that Mac Stíofáin was not a genuine informer and that the guns were not destined for the Provisional IRA.

By April 1970, the Provisional IRA had established its own arms supply from America and did not need the inferior arms that G2 was now arranging to fly into Dublin. Deviously, Mac Stíofáin told the Special Branch that the guns were on their way to Goulding's Official IRA. This sparked the arms crisis. It is clear that the Special Branch had what it believed was a genuine source of information at the highest reaches of the IRA but that he was peddling misinformation. Des O'Malley, the then Minister for Justice, was aware of a tip-off to the Special Branch about the arms flight. Regrettably, the House was misled about how the State came to learn of the imminent arrival of the arms flight. It was told that it had been discovered by civil servants who were concerned about certain aspects of the paperwork associated with the flight.

I thank the Deputy for submitting this matter for debate. I understand, of course, that it is of particular importance to the families of those involved. The period in 1970, and the arguments surrounding the Arms Trial, was an important time in our history, the repercussions of which continue to reverberate to this day. It was one of the most significant political controversies in the history of the State and remains of abiding interest despite the passage of 50 years.

As the Deputy knows, the National Archives Act provides that departmental files are subject to consideration for release to the National Archives, where appropriate, and open to public inspection. I understand that many of the records relating to the Arms Trial were released to the National Archives in 2000. While the Deputy will appreciate that some of the records could not be released because they contain sensitive Garda reports or potentially defamatory information, it should be noted that these files are subject to periodic review, including as to whether they should be released. As the Deputy is also aware, related matters were also the subject of reviews by the Attorney General and the then Minister for Justice in 2001. They were also debated in the House at that time.

Any fresh insights into the Arms Trial are bound to be not just of historical interest but of contemporary interest, particularly to the family members of those involved. It is not surprising that these events have attracted considerable interest and, no doubt, they will continue to do so in the coming years. This is all the more so when it is inevitable that as further accounts come to light explanations may be provided but further questions may also be posed. At this stage, given the long passage of time, it is difficult to see how differing accounts can be validated or adjudicated on at this remove, particularly where most of those who were involved are no longer in a position to defend themselves. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I cannot speculate on matters of that time.

I call on the Minister to confirm that Mac Stíofáin was, in fact, an informer and to declassify all files relating to the information he provided to the Special Branch about the events to which I refer. I appreciate what the Minister said regarding the sensitive nature of these files.

However, it seems that the House was given inaccurate information on 8 May 1970 when it heard a version of events which purported to explain how the State had discovered the then forthcoming arms flight. It was then claimed that the scheduled flight had been discovered by accident by civil servants who were concerned about certain paperwork issues. An incorrect version has remained on the record of the House since. It is not satisfactory that the official record of any event, let alone one as important as this, should be misleading.

Crucially, the Dáil record can only be set straight if the State confirms that the tip-off about the flight came from Seán Mac Stíofáin. I hope the Minister appreciates that the continued concealment of Mac Stíofáin's tales as an informer is tantamount to endorsing and perpetuating his agenda, which was to disrupt and undermine democracy, assist the growth of the Provisional IRA, ensure that this House continued to be deceived and belittling and defaming the memory of Captain James Kelly, an honourable soldier, who should never have been put on trial. The same also applies to the late Colonel Michael Hefferon, who was director of military intelligence at the time.

These files could be looked at, perhaps by a High Court judge. This informer was not serving the State. These files can be redacted. I hope the Minister will confirm the presence of these files because there has been a suggestion that there was a massive burning of these files in the Phoenix Park shortly after the events in question. Will the Minister listen carefully to what I have just requested? If there are files, 50 years later they can now be declassified in order that this saga can be brought to an end. It would also allow various families to get justice at this stage. I am not talking about my family but some of the public servants, particularly the Army officers, involved.

The Arms Trial, along with the controversy surrounding it, is an important part of the past and is particularly important to the families involved, as the Deputy outlined, occurring as it did against a backdrop of civil disturbance in the North on an unparalleled scale. While we are now, thankfully, in a different space, we are in a period of genuine hope that is based more on constructive work by many officeholders. Peace has been embraced and violence rejected. It is nevertheless the case that today, 50 years later, the legacy of the Troubles still resonates across the island of Ireland.

I must stress that it is not appropriate for me, as Minister for Justice and Equality, to speculate as to the intentions or the activities of those at that time or to comment on the information that may have been made available to institutions. The Deputy will appreciate, however, that it is not possible, given the current restrictions, to physically examine all of the remaining documents that exist in my Department to establish whether any records relevant to this case exist. I will give the Deputy a commitment that if any records exist, they will be reviewed and will be released as appropriate.

Covid-19 Tests

Louth is under threat from the rampant infection of Covid. From the mouth of the River Boyne to the county border in Carlingford, all citizens of County Louth are concerned about Covid because the infection rates are getting higher. There is a disproportionate presence of Covid in the county. For instance, in the Ardee electoral area, there have been fewer than five cases in the past 14 days whereas Dundalk has had over 60 and Drogheda almost 30. We want to support the HSE to ensure testing continues to take place. The fact that the testing centre is being moved from Dundalk to Ardee is a matter of concern which needs to be resolved, however.

Those doing the testing have done a fantastic job. The doctors, nurses and medical staff involved cannot be praised highly enough. They are now being supplemented by new trained swabbers which is important and welcome. On Monday last, testing capacity in Dundalk was 480 with 62 people to be tested. There were no delays. As numbers increase, however, concern also increases. People in Drogheda want to know if they can have a testing centre there. I accept that 37 full-time people will be working on testing in Ardee and it is not possible to have the same number working in Drogheda or Dundalk. That decision has been made. However, can we have a pop-up testing centre in Drogheda if the need arises? In the past week, two new pop-up testing centres were introduced in Dublin, at Croke Park and in Castleknock, and these have capacity to accommodate tests for between 180 and 200 people.

Drogheda urgently needs a Covid-19 testing centre. I thank the 1,307 people who signed a petition on this matter that I launched several days ago. That shows the depth of feeling in the area and the need for a testing centre in Ireland’s largest town.

It is a travesty that Ireland's largest town does not have a Covid-19 testing centre. The population of Drogheda town alone is in excess of 40,000. With its hinterland included, its population is approximately 70,000. The population of Drogheda is larger than the population of counties Leitrim and Longford and is close enough to the population of County Carlow.

Access to quick and safe testing is absolutely crucial for personal and public health, as well as to our economic need. I first made the case for a Covid-19 testing centre in Drogheda back in April but, since then, those calls have fallen on deaf ears. That is not good enough. The system seems to be obsessed with using county boundaries. County boundaries are anachronisms when dealing with a challenge like this. They are certainly an anachronism when one is dealing with a nascent city like Drogheda spread across two local authority areas.

I deal all the time with people in Drogheda being sent for tests in Dundalk. I pay tribute to the medical and lab staff there for their tremendous work. I deal with people in Drogheda who have no option other than to get on public transport to go up the motorway to have a test done in Dundalk, putting themselves and their fellow passengers at risk. They do not want to have to do that. They want to have a safe and accessible test in their own area. If the will is there, as we have seen with the pop-up Covid test centres elsewhere, then this can be done in Drogheda. The truth is that Drogheda needs a Covid-19 test centre and it needs it now.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue.

A comprehensive, reliable and responsive testing and tracing operation is central to our public health strategy for containing and slowing the spread of Covid-19. Capacity has been in place since early summer to test 15,000 people a day. While the system did come under pressure in recent weeks, overall the system is working well and is proving central to our public health response. Rigorous contact tracing, automatic testing of close contacts, serial testing in high-risk environments and large-scale testing in outbreak situations means we are proactively finding more cases than we would have previously.

In recent weeks, we have needed to flex resources up significantly as demand has increased. We are testing more people than ever before with over 85,000 tests completed in the past week. Community testing has increased in line with a steady increase in the prevalence of the disease. The HSE has deployed additional resources to meet this increased demand. This included the opening of additional community testing centres and mobile pop-up testing units, as well as significantly increased contact tracing teams and increased laboratory testing.

Community testing centres are fully operational seven days a week in Dundalk and in Slane, at the Slane health centre, to serve the population of Louth and Meath combined. They have been offering in excess of 750 appointments on individual days. Persons from Drogheda are currently being referred for testing in Dundalk and Slane. At present, there are no plans for a pop-up testing centre in Drogheda. However, referral demand in any area is subject to ongoing review by the HSE and evaluation against available capacity. Actions are continuously evaluated by the HSE to ensure capacity meets demand, including the extension of opening hours and the addition of testing stations to existing sites.

The HSE advises that current demand nationally and in the Dundalk and Slane centres is being met. This is a clear example of action being taken in the form of a response to demand. On 16 September, for example, 761 appointments were offered across the two facilities, whereas two weeks previously the two centres offered a combined 450 appointments per day, approximately. Further actions, including the standing up of pop-up testing centres, have been initiated in other areas where the above actions were not deemed sufficient to meet demand.

The HSE is now finalising a future service model for testing and tracing. This service model will aim to deliver a patient-centred, accessible, consistent and flexible service. This plan includes the recruitment of a permanent workforce, which has already commenced, and a range of other service improvements which will be rolled out quickly. Transition to the new model is under way and will continue through the autumn. As part of this, a comprehensive assessment of community testing and swabbing locations is being undertaken. Criteria considered include suitability and sustainability of the location as a long-term testing centre as well as travel times to test centres.

As I said, we are constantly looking to improve further the responsiveness of the testing and tracing system and we will keep demand and capacity under review. I appreciate that the two Deputies have raised the issue of a pop-up Covid-19 testing centre in Drogheda. I will relay those concerns to the Minister as soon as possible.

What is clear now is that the Slane centre is closing. The decision has been made. The Meath test centre is moving, I think, to Dunshaughlin or Ashbourne. The Dundalk centre is moving to Ardee. That is what is happening on the ground. The Dundalk centre is moving to an area equidistant from the two big towns of Drogheda and Dundalk, but that means more people will have to travel farther. I accept that the investment is there, that we must follow it through and that there are 37 full-time jobs there. It does not make sense to have a full-time testing centre in east Meath, one in Drogheda, one in Ardee and one in Dundalk. We have to wear the county jersey. I accept that that means the centre will be in Ardee. That is the decision that has been made. I welcome what the Minister of State is saying. He said that as demand increases, referral demand will be reviewed. I believe we will have - we deserve and must have - a pop-up centre in Drogheda, particularly in view of the fact of the closure of the one in Slane.

I congratulate all the HSE staff and officials on the fantastic work they are doing. Together, all of us in the Houses of the Oireachtas, whether Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin or Independent, must work together to fight this disease. It is not about more testing. It is about less Covid and getting rid of Covid from our society.

The idea that a testing centre in Dundalk would be closed down and moved to Ardee misses the point entirely. That is splitting the difference. For the sake of good planning we should be making sure that the response is where the service is needed, which in this case is Drogheda. Looking at it on population terms or need terms, an objective case can and should be made to locate a centre of some permanence in Drogheda. The HSE facilities are there and it would not take huge initiative to try to ensure that the resources are allocated to those facilities. Being quick on local testing is critical to beating this condition and making sure that our economy remains open, that people stay in work and that businesses continue to thrive under difficult circumstances. Far too many people are waiting for days for tests while their families remain at home, not at school, and partners and so on have to absent themselves from the workplace.

Money has been no object in the fight against Covid-19. We are borrowing eye-watering sums of money to tackle this condition and we will do the same next year. It is better to plan in advance for a problem we know we will have rather than simply to react to it in a few months' time, when the Minister of State will acknowledge in the House that perhaps we should have established a Covid-19 testing centre in Drogheda. I implore him and the senior Minister to make the right decision now for Drogheda, a decision that makes policy sense.

I thank Deputies Nash and O'Dowd for their commitment to trying to get a pop-up centre to Drogheda. They have made a very powerful case. As I said, the HSE advises that we are meeting all testing demand nationally across the end-to-end testing and tracing process, with adequate swabbing and laboratory capacity. I understand that these issues will be reviewed, and I will bring the Deputies' concerns to the Minister's attention.

Unlike many other European countries, our testing demand does not currently exceed supply. We are one of a few countries that automatically test close contacts as well as conducting serial testing. We are among the highest ranked in Europe on testing per million of population, having done more testing than Germany, France, Norway, Italy, etc. As I said, the HSE last week did 85,000 tests, our largest number yet: 52,000 in the community, 20,000 acutes and 13,000 serial. Starting in May, the HSE had capacity for 100,000 tests per week, about 30% of which was offshore capacity at the time. Over the summer months, however, it built capacity to 100,000 on-island tests per week. In addition, the HSE has added surge capacity of 2,000 tests per day from our German laboratory partner, which we are very fortunate to have as there is a large and growing demand internationally for such capacity. The HSE continues to forecast demand and is looking at additional kits, robots and methodologies that will increase onshore testing capacity across the winter months. There are always improvements to be made, which we remain very focused on, to ensure consistency in the end-to-end testing process. Referral demand in any area is subject to ongoing review by the HSE and evaluation against available capacity, whether that be in static or pop-up testing centres.

Again, I will bring the Deputies' concerns to the Minister's attention. I thank them for their interest in this very important subject.

Drug Treatment Programmes

I will go briefly through the sequence of this matter if the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, does not mind. On 20 August my colleague, an Teachta Gould, wrote to the Minister of State seeking information and an update on the status of drug and alcohol support group meetings. I do not think anyone will dispute how important they are. We know they are. On 26 August an Teachta Gould received a reply. In the intervening time he had to write to both the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach directly because no reply had been forthcoming from the Minister of State's office. The Minister of State advised at that stage that it may not be the time to introduce exceptions to the public health advice. On 3 September a Fianna Fáil backbencher made a video announcing that the meetings would be restarted and put it up on social media, but on 4 September, curiously, National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, issued its advice. That was a day later, so there is obviously some class of communication with the backbenches of Fianna Fáil that is not going directly into the Minister of State's office. I am sure he will wish to investigate that. On 8 September we got the official announcement, and now we hear that these vital meetings have been stopped from 19 September.

The people who go to these meetings do so because they need support. The meetings are the very definition of an essential service. These people rely wholeheartedly on this service. I will read to the Minister of State some quotes. We in Sinn Féin, an Teachta Gould in particular, have received a lot of correspondence from people. I will anonymise it, obviously:

I was in shock and very angry as we had only started the meetings back up in July and now they are shut down again. In the meetings everyone wears masks, adheres to all the safety regulations. Before I started AA I was suicidal, and the people and programme in AA saved my life.

This is another quote:

The problem is most people only know an alcoholic in active addiction. The alcoholic in recovery is a completely different person. However, we are all tarred with the one brush. This we can understand because at one time all of us in recovery were also in active addiction. It is no exaggeration to say our continued recovery depends on meetings.

Here is a final quote:

I am a recovering alcoholic and I go to meetings to stay sober. When the meetings stopped it was a huge struggle. Unfortunately, some people drank and some will never make it back to meetings.

This is very high-stakes, very important stuff and a really serious peer-to-peer support of the very best kind.

As the Minister of State can see from the testaments, this is the type of support that keeps people out of active addiction and in recovery. It can keep them going and save their lives. That is what they said. These meetings have saved lives. If that does not qualify as an essential service, I am at a loss to know what does.

It is not lost on me or on anyone listening to this debate that bookmakers and off-licenses are open and yet these vital addiction and recovery support meetings have been forcibly closed. I urge the Minister of State to rethink this and to engage with the groups which organise these meetings and to proactively find a way to ensure the meetings can take place safely. They are a lifeline. We know there will be rolling restrictions and that this is an issue that will be faced not only by Dublin but by other counties as we try to get ahead of this virus. The Minister of State is compounding the issue these people have in terms of dealing with their recovery and their addiction and moving on with their lives. I urge the Minister of State to rethink the suspension of these vital meetings.

I thank the Deputy for her views. We have found ourselves in a complex and difficult situation and I take this opportunity to update the House on the holding of drug and alcohol support group meetings in Dublin. Last week, the Government published Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19. The framework states that no organised indoor gatherings should take place when level 3 restrictions are in place and Dublin moved to level 3 from midnight on 19 September for a period of three weeks. The level 3 restrictions apply to all indoor meetings. However, organised outdoor gatherings of up to 15 people are still permitted.

I acknowledge the importance of drugs and alcohol meetings for people in recovery from addiction problems. The Covid-19 pandemic has created uncertainty and anxiety for everyone, particularly those affected by drug and alcohol addiction. My full intention, as Minister of State with responsibility for this area, is to do all I can to ensure we achieve the restoration of these essential addiction treatment services in Dublin as quickly as possible. Having spoken to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, about this issue on several occasions this week, I state for the record of the House that it is his full intention to ensure that these services are returned. However, we must ensure they can be held in a safe environment for the majority of the users of the services in a level 3 restriction area.

Individuals affected by problem drug and alcohol use often have higher levels of physical comorbidity and alcohol may make an individual‘s immune system less effective. As a result, this cohort of people are more vulnerable to the effects of respiratory disease and infection in general. These risks to the health of participants in support group meetings cannot be ignored in the context of the serious danger of Covid-19, which is an enveloping respiratory disease.

I agree with Deputy O'Reilly and other elected representatives who have contacted me concerning the importance of this issue since Friday. The drugs policy unit in my Department is currently actively working on developing safe solutions to enable the restoration of all drug and alcohol treatment services nationwide. I have asked the unit to make contact with the HSE, event organisers, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, AA, SMART Recovery, and other relevant stakeholders to develop a plan to achieve this outcome as quickly as possible.

The situation regarding Covid-19 is evolving and is having a major impact in Ireland and across the world. The measures in place and public health advice have been adapted to the changing circumstances and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. We are dealing with changing circumstances on a daily basis. Real progress has been made on suppressing the virus due to the huge effort by our citizens. By working together we have saved lives and limited the impact of the disease on society in Ireland. We must all continue to do everything possible to avoid the virus spreading. I assure anyone listening to this debate who is in recovery for addiction in Dublin that I and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, are working hard to ensure services can reopen in a safe manner as quickly as possible.

The Minister of State said that individuals affected by problem drug or alcohol use often have higher levels of physical comorbidity and that alcohol may make an individual‘s immune system less affective. That is offensive. These people are in recovery. Many of them have not had a drink for years. The Minister is saying they will never be out of recovery because in his eyes they will always be in addiction. That is what he is saying and that is grossly offensive. I have brought it up with the Minister of State before. That is not fair. These people are doing their best.

I have read out what we are hearing from these people. The meetings are a lifeline. We are here and we can have a meeting with more than 15 people. We can manage it here and do it safely. They want to do it safely and I welcome the fact that the Minister of State said he will engage but I am not sure if he gets the urgency of this or grasps how important these meetings are in order for people to keep their recovery going. These are not only people with drug and alcohol addiction but people with gambling and other addictions. They have no comorbidity. What is the excuse for gamblers? They are not at greater risk. They are not under the influence of alcohol or damaged by alcohol misuse.

The Minister of State said he will look at this proactively and will instruct people in his Department to work on it, and I welcome that. However, when he comes out with offensive language, it makes me wonder how sincere and committed he is. These meetings are a lifeline to people struggling to stay in recovery and out of addiction.

It is no less than the Minister of State's job to make sure these meetings can happen. They are, as described by the Minister for Health, essentially, a public health service. They are an essential service and I urge the Minister of State to treat them as such and to look around. It is possible, with a bit of imagination, for people to meet in a room. I ask the Minister of State to be more proactive.

I reiterate that it is my full intention, as Minister of State with responsibility for this area, to do all I can to ensure we can achieve the restoration of these essential addiction treatment services in Dublin. We all have compassion; it is not only the preserve of one party. Every Deputy, Minister and Senator in the Oireachtas and people across the country have compassion and we are working extremely hard. People in my area of the north west have come to me with addiction problems related to alcohol, drugs and gambling and I have fully understood. That is why we are working in the Department to get a resolution to this complex and difficult situation. I can advise the House that the drugs policy unit in my Department is currently actively working on developing safe solutions to help us achieve this outcome. We want safe solutions. I have asked the unit to make contact with the HSE and event organisers, such as AA and SMART Recovery.

These efforts will be supported by the work which is under way. For example, the Department of Health is already in the process of developing a framework for the restoration of drug and alcohol services. It has set up a working group involving a drug and alcohol task force and voluntary drug and alcohol service providers. To support the resumption of drug and alcohol services nationwide, I have also approved the provision of funding for adaptation of services, including premises, online meetings and personal protective equipment. It is my hope that the work already under way will help ensure this specific issue in Dublin under level 3 restrictions can be resolved quickly.

I appreciate the Deputy's concern. We want to get these meetings open as quickly as possible, but they must be done in as safe a way as possible. I hope we will have a more constructive answer in the next few days and get these meetings up and running, because that is what we all want.

Telecommunications Services

I am glad the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Ryan, is here for this Topical Issue matter. This debate on the issue I am raising has been a long time coming. I refer to people trying to report faults having an average waiting time of 57 minutes. That is the average waiting time. I am not raising this issue to complain, but as we face into the winter and the dark nights, na hoícheanta fada geimhridh, I am worried about people's mental health and their safety and security.

The situation at the moment is an unmitigated shambles and a disaster. I am not blaming the Minister. I differ with him regarding many opinions, including on green issues, but I do not on this issue. This has been a whole-of-government abandonment of the people, rural and urban. I refer to people with pendant alarms and other types of alarm connected to the telephone, as well as those who do not use mobile phones, especially the elderly and the vulnerable. They are all abandoned, because if the line goes off, they are out of contact.

I salute the founders of Eir, and its predecessors, Eircom and Telecom Éireann. I remember when the former Taoiseach, the late Albert Reynolds, waved a phone in the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis and stated that every phone would be fitted within a month, and it was. Now it is impossible to get a phone disconnected. It might take a year. It is also impossible to get a phone repaired. This is communications we are talking about. People can be waiting up to 60 minutes and still not be able to get through. I received a message from a man on Facebook this evening. He wrote:

I am a constituent of yours. I have been trying to contact Eir every day since 20 July, and been on hold every day for up to 60 minutes, without ever actually getting through to anyone. This company needs to be closed down.

This is a shocking situation in 2020. It was better back in the dark ages, when we had pigeons to deliver messages, than it is now. This is an outrageous situation and this company must be taken to task and closed down.

I salute the workmen who were there when the lines were put up and the phones installed, and especially the care and attention that was provided to the customers. I refer to the dignity of the work and the respect that those workmen had for that work. Now, however, poles are falling out on the road, hitting buses and lorries and breaking mirrors. A constituent contacted me today because he cannot cut his hedges. He has got hedge cutters from the county council to cut his hedges, but it cannot be done because wires were lying on the ditch. Wires are lying on roads and in the bogs. It is a Third World service, and above all there are no communications.

Constituents contact my office because their efforts have been futile and they are weary of being on the phone with Eir for so long. When those constituents have been unable to contact Eir themselves, they see us as the only last hope they have. They contact many other offices, besides mine. Eir often insists on those constituents getting an email address. Those people do not have email, they do not do Google and they do not even have broadband. It is shocking and disgraceful treatment, and it should be brought before the European Court of Human Rights. People are entitled to get a service for which they pay. Those people pay dearly for a connection and rent, yet they cannot use the telephones.

What about children going back to school and young people going back to college? Classes and exams are often online now. We talk about options for education, but those people cannot get broadband and do not have that service. What about farmers trying to do applications for grants? What about the CAO courses? People in rural Ireland have been especially discriminated against, but people in urban Ireland have also been affected by the situation.

It is time the new Government sorted out this issue and stopped the blackguarding, the plundering and the rape of good communities by this company, Eir, which should be ashamed of itself. It does not represent anything anymore. A gentleman contacted me recently who was trying to get disconnected from Eir for six months. Another man, Paul Lafford from Cahir, contacted me and he had an ordeal and a half in trying to deal with Eir. The company accused him of not paying his bills. When he then produced his bank statements, the company did not apologise, but it had to accept that he had paid. The company did not apologise. The Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, is toothless, useless and fruitless. We have many such institutions and boards that similarly do nothing for the public. They just have nice fancy names, fancy jobs and to hell with the people. It is a sad indictment in 2020 that such behaviour is being allowed to continue. I appeal to the Minister to use his good offices within the Government to deal with this shambolic and disgraceful company.

I thank Deputy McGrath for raising this important issue. As he is aware, the provision of electronic communications services, including the repair and restoration of telephone services, occurs within a liberalised market, regulated by the independent regulator, ComReg. As the Deputy referred to, it is responsible for the regulation of the electronic communications sector under European and national legislation.

I recognise, as the Deputy said, how vital telecommunications services are to citizens for so many aspects of their daily lives, especially during the current Covid-19 pandemic. I and officials from my Department are focused on the need to ensure that telecommunications customers are sympathetically treated at this challenging time. In this regard, officials from my Department have been engaging intensively with ComReg and with the telecommunications industry during this period. Since Covid-19 began, ComReg has been monitoring consumer issues reported to it regarding outages and, in particular, those outages for vulnerable customers that may need to be escalated. ComReg advises customers experiencing difficulties to contact their service provider in the first instance. Following this, the customer is advised to contact ComReg and, depending on the particular circumstances, the issues may be escalated by ComReg.

One of ComReg's functions is to determine the scope of the universal service obligations, USO, for the Irish market and to decide which undertaking should be designated as the universal service provider, USP. The USO is designed to ensure that every person who makes a reasonable request for access for a connection and a phone service at a fixed location can have access to a basic set of telecommunications services, no matter where he or she lives. On 29 July 2016, ComReg designated Eir as the USP until June 2021. That designation as the USP of basic telecommunication services includes a requirement, among others, to clear line faults within timelines set in the USO. As the designated USP, Eir is also required to publish information on its performance regarding the provision of the USO. ComReg publishes this information quarterly. Legally binding annual quality of service performance targets for Eir are also set by ComReg, as the independent regulator for telecommunications operators, in respect of connections and service availability targets at a national level.

Eir provides a customer guarantee scheme for repairs. It provides two months' telephone exchange line rental credit where faults are not repaired within two working days from the date the fault was reported. Any complaint that Eir is failing to provide such basic services, or failing to restore lines within a reasonable period, should be forwarded to ComReg for further examination.

I reiterate that ensuring the performance of the requirements of this USO by Eir is a statutory function of ComReg. As Minister, I have no role or function in this area. ComReg is directly accountable "for the performance of its functions to a Committee of one or both Houses of the Oireachtas", as provided for in section 34(2) of the Communications Regulation Act 2002. ComReg has a dedicated consumer helpline and I urge consumers who feel they have not received an appropriate response from service providers to make contact with the regulator.

As the Deputy has raised the issue here, I will ensure that his question and associated concerns will be raised directly with ComReg and ensure it is aware of the debate we have had tonight. It is deeply annoying and frustrating to be in situations such as those described by the Deputy. That is especially the case for people who have been left on a phone for 60 minutes waiting for a customer service operation to answer, particularly one in telecommunications. It is maddening for customers that a telecommunications company cannot answer the phone after an hour. I know that basic services that one would expect, such as quick response and contact, not being provided is a matter of real concern and I will ensure that the details of this debate are forwarded to ComReg.

I have written to Carolan Lennon, the CEO of Eir. We might as well be writing to Santa Claus. The company has no respect for its customers. I again pay tribute to its workers. A good friend and neighbour of mine, Pádraig O'Ceallaigh, who retired recently after 42 years, and his colleagues, have been travelling around the country in vans. Those workers are travelling 100 miles and more to do repairs. Eir does not have the staff on the ground and it does not have the interest.

The Minister read out his reply and I know he is a decent man. I thank him for agreeing to come to Tipperary where I will show him some of the conditions of the network. It is the land of his forebears as well. The reply that he read, however, is patronising, insulting and it is toilet paper. It is disgraceful. The Minister referred to waiting an hour on a call, but it is not possible for people to get through, sometimes for months. They ring every day for months. They do not get through to staff in Eir and they do not get a call back. Customers find it impossible to get their lines disconnected, and it is equally impossible to get a phone put in. People are flocking away from the company, and it is faltering and about to fail. It will fail.

Then there is the issue of Eir broadband. I know of people living 50 yards and 100 yards away from where it stops and they cannot get it.

Those affected include sick people who want appointments.

There is a listening service called Good Morning South Tipperary in the small village of Newcastle in south Tipperary. Wonderful volunteers go in every Monday and ring elderly, vulnerable and lonely people. Alone has also come on board and I salute that. That service is no good if people do not have, and cannot get, phone lines. Those people cannot make complaints. Some of those people do not have computers and are not able to do that kind of stuff. Our elderly people who looked after this country and built it up are being blackguarded, not to mention business people, farmers and young people. It is a shame.

To see the state of the network now would make one sad. Wires and poles are hanging into fields from the road. The poles are rotten and dangerous. I was in a council yard yesterday morning and servicemen from a private contractor had to come in to look for signs before they attempted a road job to fix a pole that was hanging over the road and posing a danger to the public. It is like "Dad's Army". It is crazy stuff and if the Minister and the Government do not do something about this, more shame on them. The Government is going to abandon its citizens during this time of Covid-19 when they are feeling lonely and isolated and the only contact they have is the guthán in their hand to have a chat and caint with their friends. It is a shame. Those people are prisoners in their own houses and have no communication with the outside world.

I am depending on the Minister. This matter has been raised several times and has got worse. The phone companies have no interest in serving the public because all they want is the money and to hell with the people. ComReg should be disbanded because it is useless, toothless and fruitless. It provides jobs for the boys, that is all. ComReg states that its representatives have talked to the phone companies but it is a waste of time.

I hope the new national broadband scheme that we are rolling out, and about which I will be answering questions later, will close the gap where there is a shortage of service and an inability for customers, particularly in rural areas, to get broadband. We will ensure that not a single house is left out. That roll-out may also have knock-on benefits for building up the pole network and other infrastructure networks. I hope that will benefit and help other customers as the backhaul and other parts of the network are enhanced to provide that coverage.

Where that is not possible, there is competition. Rival services such as SIRO are rolling out high-quality broadband to tens of thousands of houses. Competition is a way to make sure that other operators which are not providing the sort of customer service we expect face consequences. Customers will be able to use their power to move to other operators from which they are getting proper service and responses. In areas where there is no service, the State will step in to close the gap but where there is competition, I believe that will be an impetus for companies to improve.

At the same time, and as I said in my original response, there is a universal service obligation on Eir. It is ComReg's job to monitor, manage and, where appropriate, reprimand companies if they are not meeting the basic service requirements set out. I will forward the Deputy's complaints to ComReg to get the message across that what he is seeing on the ground in Tipperary is not up to the standard expected of a universal service provider. I will ensure that is brought to ComReg's attention and it will then be its responsibility to take whatever action must be taken.