I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for bringing this Bill forward. The use of sulkies or any other horse-drawn vehicles, including on public roads, is a legitimate activity provided it is done in a safe manner and having due care and consideration for other road users and the well-being of the animals involved and, in particular, in compliance with any relevant legislation including local government, road safety, public order and animal welfare legislation as well as any local by-laws, which the Deputy mentioned. The use of sulkies on public roads specifically, as with the use of all vehicles, including animal-drawn vehicles, is governed by the relevant provisions of the Roads Acts and the Road Traffic Acts.
The practice of holding unauthorised races of any kind, including sulky races, on public roads which are open to traffic is dangerous. The Roads Act 1993 requires anyone intending to hold, organise or promote a road race to give at least one month's notice in writing to the road authority and to the Garda Síochána. The road authority may then prohibit or impose conditions on such races. Anyone who contravenes the requirement to give notice or adhere to such a prohibition or conditions is guilty of an offence. Enforcement of these provisions, as with law enforcement generally, is a matter for the Garda Síochána. In opposing this Bill, therefore, I again remind Deputies that racing of any kind, including sulkies or any other horse-drawn vehicles on the roads, can be a legitimate activity provided it is done in a safe manner giving due care and consideration to other road users and the animal's well-being, and in accordance with the law as it currently stands. There are very clear and precise legalities and requirements for anyone considering a race.
In considering the animal welfare perspective, I draw the Deputy’s attention to the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, which provides robust and wide-ranging protection for all animals. This includes horses and ponies used in racing of any sort, including on roads. Horse owners or keepers who allow harm to come to the animals in their care will have committed an offence under this Act. Anyone employing animals for any purpose, including sulky drivers, must also comply with the Act, which prohibits a person from carrying out any activity in a manner that causes unnecessary pain and suffering or endangerment to the health or welfare of an animal in their control.
The issue of regulating the activity has been examined by my Department. The issues are complex and not always clear-cut, particularly as a variety of horse-drawn vehicles are legitimately and safely used on Irish roads. My Department's engagement with sulky racing is fully focused on animal welfare and education, raising awareness of the importance of good horse care and welfare among sulky participants, and the owners and keepers of trotting horses. My Department has demonstrated this commitment by funding an education programme designed specifically for sulky drivers and trotter horse owners in a number of locations around the country in 2018 and 2019.
In addition to education on husbandry, handling and welfare generally, these courses encourage participants to move away from the road racing practices and move to racing on tracks and to engage with the regulated sport of harness racing on tracks as operated by the Irish Harness Racing Association, IHRA.
While I am fully aware of the potential dangers of holding unauthorised races of any kind, including sulky races, on public roads which are open to traffic, I remind the Deputy that a mechanism to permit, prohibit, or impose conditions on such races exists under section 74 of the Roads Act 1993. The issues regarding the use of public roads are already covered by the Act. In addition to the Road Traffic Acts, local authorities also have powers under the Control of Horses Act 1996 to introduce by-laws regulating activities involving horses in their respective functional areas.
Finally, the programme for Government undertakes to continue prioritising equine welfare, and to developing additional urban horse welfare programmes where education on all aspects of equine husbandry are considered. The Government has committed to the continued robust enforcement of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 and to review the sentencing regime underpinning this legislation. Any welfare concerns identified in Deputy Mattie McGrath's proposed Bill can be considered as part of this review.