Prohibition of Sulky-Racing Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Title of this Bill, the Prohibition of Sulky-Racing Bill 2018, might be a bit misleading. As the Minister will know, I introduced similar legislation in 2018 in an effort to bring together different communities. The horse is a wonderful animal. I am glad to see Deputy Gino Kenny is here because I know he has an interest in these projects. As a buachaill óg and a young man, I worked with a horse on the farm. We drew the water and covered the spuds and so on. I like horses. The horse racing industry in Tipperary has a wonderful record in many disciplines, including flat racing and show jumping. There is great prowess and engagement in the county.

I was involved in a Traveller bow-top wagon project when I worked with the vocational educational committee as cathaoirleach of the adult education board. It was a fabulous project. I am interested in working with all people to ensure that sulky racing and sulky trotting can take place safely. I know a good few gentlemen in the parish next door to me, Ballybacon, who keep ponies and do pleasure runs in a little sulky.

What I am trying to work with people to avoid is racing on public roads without a licence. I thank the people from all over the country who have sulkies and who contacted me today. They sent me splendid photographs and evidence of their sulkies, ponies and trailers, carts or whatever they want to call them. They have engaged and are anxious to meet me, even tomorrow, to see if we could work together. I believe ní neart go cur le chéile. There is no point in having division rather than engagement. I have approached Horse Racing Ireland and some tracks to see if facilities could be shared to allow this sport to be carried on in a safe and authorised way with police clearance. Perhaps charities could benefit from it.

I salute Mr. Jonathan Irwin of Jack and Jill Foundation fame. Most will know him. He was very involved in this area. He gave a seminar in the audiovisual room some years ago, which Deputy Gino Kenny and I attended, about the prisoner horse project in Castlerea Prison in the west. I spoke to Mr. Irwin today and the ten stables under one roof for this project are finished although there has been no engagement with the project yet because of Covid. I look forward to the roll-out of that project, which will allow people to continue their love of, and friendship with, animals. As the Minister knows, animals can be very therapeutic for people. We see that with dogs who help people with autism and so on. We know things now that we did not know before.

I have said all this as a foreword. The Bill has one simple aim, which is to prohibit sulky road racing where - I emphasise this - no lawful permission has been granted. The primary motivation behind the Bill is to address growing health and safety and welfare concerns for the public, the horses and the young passengers who are often involved. The Bill does not impact upon off-road sulky racing in any shape, make or form. Sulky road racing, in which children as young as ten hitch lightweight carts to ponies or horses to race them down busy motorways, national primary roads, or tertiary roads, is an extremely dangerous activity.

It is also brutal and cruel with regard to the health and welfare of the animals concerned. I know this from both the people who have contacted me and from vets who have been called to the scene of incidents. I am going on their evidence rather than my own. I am no expert on the body parts of the horse, especially the legs. I am not qualified to deal with that. The horses are often raced at an age when they are far too young to be ridden. That is a problem. The gentleman I spoke to today acknowledged that there are rogue elements in this area and that this is not right. Racing horses at this young age puts them at a higher risk of torn ligaments, broken bones or other serious injuries. They rarely have proper shoes or tack and their riders usually do not have permits or insurance, which means that any horse wounded during a race is likely to be killed on site. There is legislation under which horses have to be microchipped and owners have to have licences and permits but that is another issue. There are also usually moving vehicles on the same road at the same time as these sulky races are held, putting motorists, pedestrians, sulky riders and the animals themselves in grave danger. That is the worry. Recent footage, a copy of which I received today, showing a race involving two trotting ponies drawing sulkies has shocked the Irish public.

The tragic case in February 2016 which led to the death of a young boy of only 12 when he was thrown under a truck after being involved in a sulky accident was a motivating factor for me in bringing this Bill before the House. The family of that young boy, Seán Doyle, have said that they hope stronger regulations can prevent future loss. That is very magnanimous of them.

The Bill essentially seeks to address some of the deficiencies in existing law. It is currently almost exclusively a matter for local authority by-laws to address this issue. This is leading to a complete lack of a consistent approach. Kilkenny, Limerick, Waterford and my own county of Tiobraid Árann all have different by-laws. I had an interesting engagement with the Minister of State from Kilkenny today, a Green Party member whose name alludes me. When he was on Kilkenny County Council, the council made great efforts to get sulky racing off of roads and onto tracks. It nearly got it over the line but, unfortunately, it fell at the final furlong or the last fence, which is a pity. I thank the Minister of State for sharing his experience with me.

Local authority by-laws have proven completely insufficient to address the issue. This Bill aims to implement a more holistic and cohesive national approach to regulation in this area. That is what I want. I am not a killjoy. I am not anti-sport or anti-horse. Health and safety are the primary reasons for this Bill.

Section 1 sets out the meaning of sulky racing in the Bill, which is "the racing of a horse-drawn vehicle on any road under local authority jurisdiction." Section 2 provides that:

A person shall not organise or cause or permit to take place any performance involving—

(a) sulky-racing,

(b) riding or attempting to ride an animal which, by the use of any appliance horse drawn carriage, is or has been stimulated with the intention of making it race,

or

(c) any other activity that may cause unnecessary suffering to an animal and is prohibited by animal health and welfare regulations.

That last provision is very important. I thank an iarSheanadóir, Brian Ó Domhnaill, and Mr. David Mullins for helping me draft this Bill.

Section 3 of the Bill sets out local authorities' responsibilities. The Bill grants local authorities all powers necessary to enforce the law. Section 4 of the Bill provides that those found in breach of the law could face "a fine not exceeding €5,000 and a term of imprisonment not exceeding 6 years." Section 5 of the Bill outlines the administrative steps to be followed with regard to proceedings and sanctions, including the provision of fixed penalties.

I hope my colleagues will be minded to support this legislation which aims to find a national formula to address this serious ongoing issue before any other fatalities or tragedies occur. I look forward to constructive debate. That is my motivation. I am not saying this Bill is perfect or anything like it. I do not know whether the Government will oppose or accept my effort. I am completely open to changing and amending the Bill in order to create proper, meaningful legislation which will deal with this very concerning issue. Not a day goes by, especially in the summertime but in the wintertime too, on which my office does not get a call from somewhere in Munster, or around the country, about people being forced off the road on their way to or from work. The people from Galway to whom I spoke about racing are adamant that we work together to run legally permitted races once or twice a month without any cars or vans driving alongside to make a video.

That is the inherent danger when there is a wave of three or four sulkies across the road along with several cars and vans right behind them urging them on. Other road users have nowhere to go. Some time ago, the car of a pregnant woman coming from work in Limerick was forced off the road and finished upside down in a field. That is not right. I have come across countless cases where cars have been damaged and, in many instances, the sulkies did not stop but kept going. That is not fair to hard-pressed taxpayers who pay their taxes and insurance and want to be on the road. I have recently seen sulky racing taking place in dangerous fog. I have seen it taking place in frosty weather on a slippery road. That could not be safe. We need to work together to find a formula and a solution.

I mentioned the horse project I was involved in, the bow-top wagon project. I also mentioned the horse project taking place in the prisons. I salute the Prison Service. I hope the Minister for Justice continues to support this project. It is badly needed and very therapeutic.

Animal cruelty, in the context of this matter, needs to be stamped out. The animal rescue centres in Clonmel, Tipperary and all over the country do tremendous work. There are the Déise Animal Sanctuary, Anne Williamson from Cappanagarrane, the PAWS animal rescue in Mullinahone and others. Departmental officials have been called out. We have incidents every year close my home where large numbers of animals are kept on land inappropriately and there have been horrific experiences. That is not related to sulky racing. The horses are wintered there, and it is just not right. It is sad. People are very hurt and challenged by it.

I pay tribute the late Sergeant Niall O'Halloran, who was our local community garda. He made gallant efforts to deal with this situation. Those horses are also trespassing on many people's property. Due to the fact that they are hungry, it is not possible to blame the horses. They do not have enough fodder or feed. The regulations need to be tightened up across the board - the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, An Garda Síochána and local authorities. I understand the UK has a dedicated police outfit to deal with it because it is so dangerous. It could be enjoyed by many people if it took place off-road or occasionally on-road with permits. In France, it is a very lucrative industry. A considerable amount of money comes to the coffers of the French finance minister from the proceeds, the betting tax and everything else. Therefore, it can be done.

We need to look at best practice throughout Europe and internationally. The harness racing people have a different set up. Their races are organised and take place on tracks. Deputies do not get complaints about that. I am not saying I get all the complaints, but I get many of them. We can look at best international practice. We can try to have better regulations. I favour the use of the carrot and the stick.

We should try to bring the people with us to ensure in the first instance that the riders, some of whom are very young, the horses and, above all, the general public - cyclists, pedestrians pushing buggies, people out for a run and motorists - are protected. We are all entitled to share the same space to the best of our ability, but safety must be paramount. The injuries that can occur are horrific. We have seen them. The potential for further injuries, and worse, still exists. This Bill is a humble effort on my part to try to address this serious issue. I look forward to hearing the views of the Minister and the other Teachtaí Dála who are interested in the matter. We need deal with this issue once and for all. We need to enact legislation to make it safer for everyone.

People tell me they are appalled and rightly so. A child in a car needs to be restrained, and rightly so. Some 20 or 30 years ago it was different, but those are the laws now. Children are literally hanging off these sulkies and I would be fearful that someone would fall off. In this time of year when the days are short, but those to whom I refer never wear fluorescent jackets or have any lights on their sulkies. We need to try to resolve this matter and proceed together in respect of it. I am willing to meet the relevant representatives in the coming weeks and in the new year in order to work with them on arriving at a better and regulated - more regulated certainly - situation and have fewer chances for major incidents, accidents or even deaths to occur.

Debate adjourned.