Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Mortgage Insurance

The Covid-19 pandemic has up-ended many areas of our lives. In normal circumstances, buying a home can often be a complex and stressful process. However, Covid-19 has made the purchase of a new home especially difficult for people with underlying health conditions. That is because individuals with underlying health conditions are finding it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to access certain types of insurance cover during this pandemic.

A case from my constituency of Dublin North-West illustrates the obstacles that are now being placed in front of people who have underlying health conditions who are trying to access mortgage protection and life insurance. A young professional couple with two young children, who have struggled to get themselves onto the property ladder, have been denied mortgage protection because the otherwise young, fit and healthy husband was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It has taken them years of great patience, hard work and sacrifice for them to reach a point where they are in a position to purchase a house. Having successfully secured mortgage approval, they entered a highly competitive housing market. They managed to get a sale agreed on a home suitable for their family, but in the process they had to extend and stretch their savings to a point where there will not be any money left over for essential refurbishment. Having gone through so much to secure a house, it came as a shock to them to find that every major insurer in the country would not provide mortgage protection cover to them because the husband had been diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic. It is clear that while Covid remains an issue, the insurance companies would either defer or decline cover for them.

Their case is not unique and it is becoming apparent that many people are having their house purchase fall through because they cannot get mortgage protection due to the pandemic. What all of these people have in common is that they have a variety of underlying conditions, which previously would not have precluded them from obtaining mortgage protection insurance. The family in question contacted numerous insurance brokers in an attempt to get mortgage protection. However, it was made clear to them that there was little or no hope of them getting cover during the current pandemic. It appears that the re-insurance companies have instructed the underwriters of the insurance not to accept an individual who rates above a certain level on the underwriting tables due to Covid. The result is that individuals with an underlying illness are rating above the new lower level. The husband in the case I outlined was clearly insurable pre-Covid, as he is no less healthy than he was before Covid but he is being denied cover because of his underlying condition in this pandemic.

The whole process has been exhausting for the family. The denial and deferral of cover, with no light at the end of the tunnel, is disheartening and depressing, especially for those families who have worked so hard and have overcome so many hurdles and obstacles to get to this point, only to see their dreams shattered when they are almost at the finishing line. Insurance companies have a duty to be fair to the consumer under the consumer protection code. This case clearly shows they are not being fair to this family and in fact are discriminating against the individual in question and his family. Will the Minister of State commit to engaging with the Insurance Ireland to end this discriminatory practice?

I thank Deputy Ellis for raising the issue, which is obviously a very difficult one for the family concerned that wanted to purchase their own home. While I have an appreciation of the difficulties individuals may find themselves in as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, neither I, the Minister for Finance, nor the Central Bank of Ireland can interfere in the provision or pricing of insurance products nor do we have the power to direct insurance companies to provide cover to specific individuals or businesses. This position is reinforced by the EU framework for insurance, which prohibits member states from doing so. Consequently, unfortunately, I cannot direct insurance companies as to how they price their policies or what terms and conditions they apply to those policies.

It is my understanding that insurers use a combination of rating factors in making their individual decisions on whether to offer life insurance, such as mortgage protection cover, and what terms to apply. These factors can include age, health, family medical history, occupation and lifestyle. In addition, these may be determined or linked to the policy duration and whether the policy is for ten, 15, 20 or 25 years. In the case of mortgage protection policies, these tend to be over the lifetime of the mortgage repayment schedule. In addition, my understanding is that different insurers do not use the same combination of rating factors. Accordingly, price and availability of cover varies across the market, and policies are priced in accordance with each firm's prior claims experience.

My officials contacted Insurance Ireland, the representative body for such providers in Ireland, on this issue recently. It stated that while some customers are still able to get life, critical illness or mortgage protection insurance at this challenging time, it is aware of a small number of individual cases where a final decision on some life insurance applications is being postponed for a period where applicants have an underlying health condition. That essentially confirms what the Deputy outlined, that there is a small number of such cases. Insurance Ireland, the representative body of the insurance industry, has confirmed that. However, it stated that while unaware of any cases where life cover has been denied as a result of Covid, such policies are assessed on a case-by-case basis and that underlying health conditions will be taken into account by the underwriters, as was the case pre-Covid-19. It does appear that there are delays occurring for people who otherwise would have got mortgage protection previously, but because of Covid the insurers are being exceptionally careful and overly prudent in the cover they now offer.

I can understand the difficulties the Deputy has highlighted. It means that a person who probably had mortgage approval in principle before Covid came along, who had a certain amount of money and felt they would be able to proceed, but the delay could in all probability mean they might not be able to get a house because the vendor might have moved on to somebody else who did not have a problem getting a mortgage. I hope that after the Covid restrictions the family that was entitled to it will be able to get mortgage cover far more easily. I accept the delay due to Covid could affect the purchase, as the house in question might not still be on the market when the situation hopefully improves early in the new year. I understand the difficulty because of Covid, and the unknown period involved. Depending on the employment situation of individuals, it is causing a problem during this period which did not exist previously. I hope once Covid is under control that things will get back to normal and those people will be able to get back on the housing market next year, albeit not perhaps to buy the house they were looking at earlier this year.

I thank the Minister of State for his contribution, but he must use his influence. I accept he cannot interfere in the insurance market, but his influence is very important. I do not think it is acceptable at all to say that things can be delayed, because that effectively means the person has lost their house, and to wish them luck and tell them they must search again.

The Minister of State knows the stress on the people looking for houses and the competition out there. It is just not good enough to say there is a delay because of Covid-19. Why is Covid-19 influencing this matter? In the past people were able to get mortgages who had type 1 diabetes and because of Covid-19, there is a delay for them. That is totally unacceptable.

If the Minister of State used his own moral compass to judge this, he would come to the same conclusion that this is not acceptable and should not be allowed. There are many more other examples and I have just mentioned one couple. There is no doubt that this bad practice is going on but it should not be allowed. People are punished enough and have many problems in life so they should not be penalised even further.

These people pay more now to rent a home than they would if they had a mortgage. This has put huge strain on the family in question and their resources. If the process is delayed and they lose the property, they will be under further strain and may be subject to price increases. The house they had in mind might be gone. It is just not good enough and the federation should be more sympathetic to people in these positions and not impose such rules. It is an absolute scandal that it is allowed to use Covid-19 as an excuse.

I thank Deputy Ellis for his remarks. There are some cases where a person getting a mortgage for a house may not require life cover but that does not apply in this case. In some cases it may be purchased with a higher cost.

I met representatives of Insurance Ireland today and raised this matter. The meeting was nicely timed because I had notice of the Deputy's matter. They told me there can be difficulties. There is no commitment but I suggest the Deputy or the people on whose behalf he speaks might contact Insurance Ireland directly as it might be able to help in looking around the market and find a company that the brokers did not come across. That is not to make any commitment but Insurance Ireland is aware of this issue in a very small number of cases. It is worth double-checking with the body whose representatives I met today.

If all else fails, the Deputy should know that if somebody feels aggrieved or feels they have been treated unfairly by a particular insurance provider, there is an option to make a complaint to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman, who acts as an independent arbitrator of disputes consumers may have with an insurance company or other financial services provider. That is also an option.

I know this takes time and it is not easy for the family involved. The only two suggestions I can make are to contact the ombudsman or Insurance Ireland directly. They may be able to help but these are the only avenues I can suggest because the Minister for Finance cannot direct individual insurance companies to issue particular policies to individual people. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter and I hope that in due course things will come right for the family.

I thank the Minister of State and the Deputy for discussing that important matter and particularly the Minister of State for his positive response. The second matter is also very important.

Northern Ireland

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this very important matter. On many occasions in this House and at Oireachtas committee meetings I have highlighted the need for further investigation into the bombing at Belturbet on 28 December 1972. Sadly, two teenagers, Geraldine O'Reilly and Paddy Stanley, lost their lives due to that heinous crime and many others were injured as well. Nobody has ever been brought to justice for these murders.

A full, thorough and comprehensive investigation of this atrocity is needed in Northern Ireland. The bomb that had such devastating consequences was brought across the Border from County Fermanagh. Every possible avenue of investigation needs to bring to justice the perpetrators of this horrendous crime.

At oral questions for the Minister for Justice on 10 September, I referenced the detailed report by assistant professor Dr. Edward Burke of the University of Nottingham on the activities of loyalist paramilitaries, particularly in Cavan and Monaghan. It is clear there was collusion between some British state forces and loyalist paramilitaries in their attacks in Cavan and Monaghan. I compliment "RTÉ Investigates" on the recent excellent documentary on the events concerning that fatal night in Belturbet. That programme has quite rightly won widespread acclaim.

The O'Reilly and Stanley families, whom I know very well, have always been so dignified and gracious but they continue to suffer a great deal due to the cruel loss of their loved ones. The least they deserve is to get the truth about the identity of those people involved with planning and carrying out that bombing.

The very important publication, Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles, references the reliable sources who attribute this bombing to the Ulster Volunteer Force, UVF. So much has been known over the years but, very regrettably due to lack of co-operation and a thorough investigation in Northern Ireland, no prosecutions have followed.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak to this matter. I was born in 1967 and as a child of the Troubles, although indirectly, I am very much aware of their impact on our country. I remember various and major atrocities as they occurred during my lifetime, whether they were at Dublin, Monaghan, Warrenpoint, Birmingham, Enniskillen or Omagh. These atrocities had an impact on our people and their psyche and they led many people to take up arms as well. There was destruction, mayhem and killing of innocent people or shattering of the lives of those left behind. I honestly never envisaged in those times that there would be a resolution or solution but thanks to the patriotism afforded to us by the likes of Hume and his initiative with Adams, along with Haughey, Reynolds, Major, Ahern, Blair, Trimble and Bruton, among others, peace was eventually brokered.

This was a magnificent achievement in our lifetime, a solution in the form of the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements. There was buy-in by the American people and representatives, along with Europe and the Irish people. We have seen the peace dividend that came as a result and our island's ability since to attract business, tourism and, despite the pressures that exist because of Brexit, there is a willingness on an all-island basis to respond in a positive economic way.

There are provisions in the Good Friday Agreement to allow governments to pursue the island's interest. There is the prospect of a conventional government in time, a border poll and conventional politics and representation as we know it as a result. However, there is something left unresolved, including the unsolved or brushed away atrocities associated with those Troubles. These include Martin Finucane, Paul Quinn, the McAnespies of Aughnacloy or Robert McCartney in a Belfast pub, not to mention the disappeared.

Last night's programme highlighted another atrocity that had an impact on the lives of innocents and townspeople of my own. Last weekend we heard Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen speaking about the extra mile that people need to go to find a solution to the impact of Brexit on our economy, as well as the British and European economies. Nobody talks about the extra yard when miles have been walked by many in achieving the peace we have.

A border poll may be realised along with a united Ireland by all who aspire to it, and we all have the same love for the flag.

It is time that the peace was augmented by the truth commission we have heard about at various times in our recent history. The British forces and those who were responsible on our side of the argument must give a commitment to acknowledging the part they played in these atrocities and allow people like the parents and siblings of Paddy Stanley and the family of Geraldine O'Reilly and many more like them throughout the country to find closure. Unfortunately when we talk about going the extra mile, we must think of the mile those families had to walk from the church to the graveyard, not only to bury the victims of the Belturbet atrocity but also to bury their parents who have died since. They were not afforded the appreciation they deserved. The Government must ensure that a truth and reconciliation commission is part of the process of bringing a finality to the Troubles. It needs to be part of the process and I urge the Government to ensure that it will be.

I thank the Deputies for raising this very important and serious matter. The bombing of Belturbet on 28 December 1972 was an appalling and callous act of violence that claimed the lives of two innocent young people and injured others. The pain and anguish caused was very evident in the television programme broadcast last night as family members recalled the events that took their loved ones away. The dreadful effects of this attack last to this day and the suffering of those who have lost what was most precious to them goes on. That the perpetrators of this atrocity have never been held accountable for their crimes can only compound that sense of loss.

My deepest sympathies go out to the bereaved and injured and it is my firm desire that the perpetrators will face justice and the families find the answers they seek. I know the Deputies and the entire House share this sentiment. As the Deputies will be aware, the Garda authorities have previously advised that the bombing and the murders were comprehensively investigated by An Garda Síochána at the time. The Defence Forces provided expert assistance and the investigation involved close liaison with the authorities in Northern Ireland. Despite every avenue of inquiry being pursued at the time, there was insufficient evidence to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice. The investigation into the bombing and the two murders has not been closed and An Garda Síochána will pursue any new evidence or information that is made available. Of course An Garda Síochána would work in close co-operation with the PSNI where that could advance the investigation.

Following the Debate in the House in September, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, arranged for a copy of the academic article referred to by Deputy Smith, which concerned inter alia the Belturbet bombing and information on a potential suspect, to be forwarded to the Garda authorities for attention. The Minister has also requested an update from the Garda authorities on the investigation. I appeal for anybody with any information that may be relevant to this case, even after nearly 50 years, to bring it to the attention of the Garda authorities to aid their investigation.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am very glad he has confirmed that the report I brought to the attention of the House in September has been referred by the Minister for Justice to the Garda authorities for further investigation. Again, I compliment Professor Burke of Nottingham University for his detailed report on the reprehensible activities of loyalist paramilitaries in Ulster, particularly in south Ulster and the counties of Cavan and Monaghan.

The Minister of State quite rightly stated that it is almost 50 years since this atrocity was carried out but as I said to the Taoiseach earlier today, it is never too late to get to the truth. These families, whom I know so well, have always acted with dignity and grace. They fully realise that no matter what prosecution follows, sadly it will not bring Geraldine or Paddy back to life but they want to get the truth about who planned and carried out that bombing. They want to know what sinister forces were involved in co-operating and making it possible for the perpetrators to bring a bomb across the Border into Belturbet on 28 December. We hear about legacy issues in general terms but such issues comprise individuals and families; individuals whose lives were taken away and families who have grieved in the meantime. They also comprise others who suffered injuries due to the terrorism inflicted on this island by so-called republican and loyalist paramilitaries and in some cases, by State forces in Northern Ireland.

I appeal to the Minister of State to impress upon An Garda Síochána the importance of ensuring that every effort is made to give momentum to this investigation. I am very glad that the Taoiseach made a commitment in the House today that he will raise with the British and Northern Irish authorities the absolute need for a full, thorough and comprehensive report into this desperate atrocity that sadly took two young lives and caused injuries to many more. The least that the O'Reilly and Stanley families deserve is the truth about who carried out that bombing, causing them such grief and taking away two young innocent lives.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Deputy Smith made reference to a report that he sought acknowledgement of, as well as a commitment on the part of the Government to further explore and to raise with the British Government in the context of our aspiration for the truth to emanate from such hard work on the part of many, not least the O'Reilly and Stanley families. The McConvilles, the Stacks in Laois, the Finucanes as well as the Stanleys and O'Reillys deserve some form of resolution. They deserve a process and the further advancement of the magnificent peace we have achieved. They deserve a forum or mechanism to resolve their outstanding issues but to date they have had no success. While we reap the rewards of peace, acknowledge the potential of peace and strive to fulfil the aspirations contained in agreements reached by previous Governments, we must remember that many have lost and many have seen others benefit from the mayhem and murder that was inflicted upon them. I include here the McCabes in Limerick as well as the others I have already mentioned. There must be a means by which we seek and find the truth.

The Irish and British security forces met shortly after the atrocity in Belturbet and agreed to lock away a lot of the information that was available to them until 2057. That was done in the context of the Troubles and the enormous strife of that time but it was not done with the knowledge of the peaceful resolution that has since materialised. It is for that reason that I ask for a renewed effort on the part of both Governments.

Again, I thank Deputies Smith and Cowen for raising this important matter. In looking at how we can move forward, it is important to emphasise that the Garda criminal investigation remains open and any new information or evidence will be thoroughly investigated in Ireland and in Northern Ireland, with the assistance of the PSNI. As I said earlier, the Minister for Justice has sought an update on this case.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to work with the UK Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to address the legacy of the Troubles through the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement framework. Officials in my Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs are actively working on this commitment. Indeed, as the subject of the Barron report, the Belturbet bombing is included in the remit of the all-party motions calling on the UK Government to provide access to original documents. The Government is committed to actively pursuing the implementation of these all-party Dáil motions and has consistently raised the issue with the Government. Most recently, the Minister for Foreign Affairs raised the need for progress on this issue directly with the Secretary of State, Mr. Brandon Lewis, when he met him in Belfast in October. As Deputy Smith rightly pointed out, the Taoiseach stated this morning that he would pursue the matter with the British and Northern Irish authorities, recognising that the O'Reilly and Stanley families need closure. They also need to obtain the truth and as Deputy Smith said, it is never too late for that.

In light of the statements made by the Taoiseach this morning, the statements made in this debate and the fact that the academic paper Deputy Brendan Smith mentioned was referred to An Garda Síochána last September, could I suggest that the Deputies might want to table a question seeking an update on how matters are progressing from the Department and the Garda in a couple of months' time? It might be useful. I know we have gone over time but it was a life and death issue we were debating.

Urban Regeneration and Development Fund

At the outset, I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue for debate. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, in the Chamber. Ennis is the capital town of County Clare and the largest town in Munster, with a population of more than 25,000 people. Ennis town centre is distinguished by its medieval character exemplified by narrow streets, laneways and traditional buildings, all of which are complemented by the natural qualities of the River Fergus which flows through the town. Clare County Council recently concluded a document entitled Ennis 2040, an economic and spatial strategy for the town to 2040. Having fed into this report through various workshops, I was most grateful to receive a briefing from the director of services and the senior planner on the completed policy document a few weeks ago. It is anticipated that this economic and spatial strategy will be formally launched in the coming weeks. I am confident that implementation of this plan will strengthen Ennis in its role as a key economic driver and major tourist destination in the mid-west region.

Rejuvenation and enhancement programmes are essential for any civic spaces. The establishment of the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, by the last Fine Gael-led Government has given local authorities such as Clare County Council an opportunity to secure the necessary funding to address the shortcomings in town centre public realms. One of the first projects to benefit under the newly established urban regeneration and development fund was the regeneration of Parnell Street in Ennis, along with the extensive network of lanes and bow-ways off the street. Work commenced on this important project last July and I am happy to report that the contractors are making great progress.

A number of months ago, Clare County Council lodged a further ambitious urban regeneration and development fund application to further deal with the public realm issues in Ennis. These plans were informed by a process of public consultation, stakeholder engagement and technical design studies. This project is effectively the last piece in the jigsaw. The areas covered by the proposal are Barrack Street, Old Barrack Street, O'Connell Square, High Street and Old Connell Street. O'Connell Square houses an iconic statue of Daniel O'Connell and is one of the most important public spaces in Ennis town centre. Public events of all natures have taken place here, from political rallies to sets danced at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. High Street, Bank Place and Barrack Street lead off the square while O'Connell Street is the principal shopping street in Ennis, with standout award-winning shops, bars and restaurants.

This is a most important application and a critical scheme for the town of Ennis. I hope the Minister of State and his Department's officials will give this key rejuvenation scheme favourable consideration, particularly after the devastating fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic on Ennis and surrounding areas.

I thank Deputy Carey for raising the issue of this very important application under the urban regeneration and development fund. He has consistently raised the merits of this project with my office over recent months. Project Ireland 2040, which was launched by the Government on 16 February 2018, is the overarching policy and planning framework for the social, economic and cultural development of Ireland. It includes a detailed capital investment plan for the period from 2018 to 2027, the National Development Plan 2018-2027 and the 20-year national planning framework, NPF. The principles of the NPF are underpinned by the national development plan, NDP, a ten-year €116 billion capital investment programme. The National Development Plan 2018-2027 established four new funds, with a combined allocation of €4 billion to 2027. The URDF has an allocation of €2 billion to 2027, primarily to support the NPF's growth enablers for the five cities and other large urban centres, such as Ennis.

The URDF, which was launched in 2018, is providing part-funding for local authority-led projects that will enable a greater proportion of residential and mixed-use development to be delivered within the existing built-up footprints of our cities and large towns while also ensuring that more parts of our urban areas can become attractive and vibrant places in which people choose to live and work as well as to invest in and visit.

Too many of our large towns and cities have been blighted by run-down and poorly utilised areas. Through this urban regeneration and development fund support, local authorities now have the opportunity to embrace the challenge of harnessing the untapped potential of these areas so that they contribute positively to our urban communities.

The URDF-supported capital programme has been very well received and already the URDF is providing assistance for a pipeline of major projects that will contribute to the regeneration and rejuvenation of Ireland's five cities and other large towns. The URDF provides planning authorities with the opportunity to co-ordinate their planned regeneration and rejuvenation of our large towns and cities with a stream of tailored significant Exchequer capital investment for the first time, which will ensure that the right project is happening in the right place at the right time.

In 2019 approval in principle and provisional funding allocations issued in respect of the 87 major projects across the country, including projects in Ennis, which were approved under the first call. The Deputy mentioned this when referring to the jigsaw which we are now trying to complete. Some €3.85 million in URDF support has been allocated to support rejuvenation and enhancement as part of the Ennis town centre public realm regeneration programme, which involves extensive works at Parnell Street and the network of lanes and bow-ways in the medieval core of Ennis town.

Under the second call of the URDF, which was launched earlier this year, 76 proposals were received, with every local authority submitting at least one application. One of these was a proposal from Clare County Council for further support in respect of Ennis town centre public realm regeneration, which Deputy Carey has mentioned. Many of the proposals received under this second call are of significant scale and complexity and require careful evaluation. This process is ongoing in my Department.

I thank the Minister of State for his update, his response and his knowledge of this particular issue. When does he expect a decision to be arrived at with regard to URDF applications? He said that there had been 76 applications nationwide. This is a key application made by Clare County Council. It is the final piece of the jigsaw. It is underpinned by public consultation, engagement with a number of stakeholders and technical and design studies. It is a really good project located in the heart of Ennis on the main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street and O'Connell Square. A positive result for this project would give a great lift to Ennis. I hope the Minister of State is in a position to visit County Clare and to turn the sod on this development in the new year. Perhaps he could give an early Christmas present to Ennis tonight in his reply.

Will the Minister of State commit the funds before he turns the sod?

I thank Deputy Carey and the Ceann Comhairle. I acknowledge the great amount of work the Deputy has put into supporting this project and into articulating its merits. My office has received numerous items of correspondence specifically outlining how important this project is to Ennis and its merits. I assure the Deputy that all his representations will be taken on board. This is obviously a key funding stream for rural Ireland and we hope that we can complete the jigsaw, as the Deputy has put it. It is very important that we do just that.

I can give the Deputy a firm commitment that all his representations are being taken on board by my Department and my office. Regeneration funding is about unlocking the potential in our regional towns and cities to ensure they get the chance to grow. In the coming months, as private investment in our economy will be weak, we need a robust public investment to make up for that. The URDF will be a key enabler to our regions to do that. I assure the Deputy that the key points he made tonight will get the highest attention. I look forward to working with him to complete this jigsaw for Ennis.

Regional Airports

As the Minister of State is aware in 2011, the public service obligation, PSO, was withdrawn from the Sligo-Dublin route, which led to the end of commercial flights. However, since then Sligo Airport has focused on four services: search and rescue; medevac, which is medical evacuation for critically ill patients to centres of medical excellence and, God knows, we have few of those in the west; out-of-hours urgent operations and a facility for refuelling; and the maintenance of a 24-hour air traffic control service to facilitate all those. The Minister of State will agree that these are crucial services. The operational area for these services is Clifden to Belfast, and Sligo is ideally situated in that it is coastal and in the middle of this area. For the past three years, Sligo has been the largest search and rescue base in Ireland.

It provides 24-7 air traffic control and ground services, backed up by a team of 47 experienced, dedicated and capable staff, five full-time, 28 in search and rescue and four in aircraft maintenance. Given the essential nature of this service, it is astonishing that I or any other Deputy would need to stand up in this House and say this service will not survive in a safe and sustainable way next year or the following year because the airport has been starved of funding. Sligo Airport achieved the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, certification as an air navigation service provider in 2011, and aerodrome certification in 2017. To maintain these essential capabilities, Sligo, which is small by comparison with other airports, needs a small investment of €500,000 to carry out these essential works, which are mandated by the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, so that it can continue to provide these services.

The good news is that the airport itself will commit €200,000 to the works and it is looking for €300,000 from Government, plus €100,000 per annum to maintain services for the following three years. The IAA has insisted on the runway reconfiguration being completed by 28 January 2021 or otherwise it will issue a safety directive.

Nobody is crying wolf here. This is a matter of extreme urgency and there is no kicking the can down the road. The airport is confident that these works can be completed as all permissions are in place and suppliers have been identified. It is important to note that a small airport with no passenger traffic and no revenue streams but which supplies essential services had been managed in such a prudent way that it can contribute 40% of the cost of the essential works. If the Minister of State does not work with Sligo Airport and provide the minimal funding required, it will be a slap in the face for the people of the region and the abdication of Government responsibility to ensure search and rescue can continue.

Sligo Airport is not looking for regional status. It just needs minimal funding to maintain its status.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to speak about Sligo Airport. As she will be aware, Sligo Airport is a private company based in Strandhill. As well as general aviation services, the airport operates as a Coast Guard search and rescue base under a commercial contract with CHC Ireland. The Department of Transport contracts for the delivery of the search and rescue service to CHC Ireland, which uses Sligo Airport as a base to deliver part of this service. The arrangements for this are a matter between CHC and Sligo Airport and do not involve the Department of Transport. As such, the airport does not receive funding from the Department in respect of the search and rescue service.

It has been almost a decade since Sligo Airport was eligible for Exchequer funding. Before 2011, when the airport operated scheduled services, it received State support through the Government's regional airports programme and a PSO air service between Sligo and Dublin.

Policy on regional airports has always been focused on optimising conditions for connectivity. As a result, Exchequer funding is contingent on airports operating scheduled passenger services as part of that programme. In the past, in the absence of high-quality road and rail infrastructure and services, Ireland's smallest airports had a more pronounced role in national connectivity. However, following the substantial development of the national road network, particularly the completion of the interurban motorways from 2009 onwards, Government policy on supporting regional airports has become more focused on facilitating international access to the regions.

In light of this and the need to maximise scarce resources following the financial crisis of 2008, the Department completed a value-for-money review on supports for regional airports in 2010. The review made certain recommendations in respect of these supports, which were duly incorporated into the design of subsequent regional airport programmes.

The main outcome of the review was the withdrawal of funding for PSO services between Dublin and the airports at Galway and Sligo. As a result, Sligo Airport no longer met the criteria for inclusion in the programme and all Exchequer funding to the airport ceased after 2011. Without passenger flights or plans to develop passenger flights, Sligo Airport's operations still fail to meet the connectivity objective associated with Government policy on funding of regional airports.

I expect to publish a new regional airports programme for the period 2021 to 2025 in the coming weeks and Government has provided €21.3 million for this programme in budget 2021. The new programme will focus Exchequer funding on our smaller regional airports with scheduled passenger air services and annual passengers of less than 1 million passengers. This programme will help eligible airports remain viable as they begin to plan for recovery and transition away from the devastation of Covid-19. The programme will also support the PSO air services between Kerry and Dublin, and Donegal and Dublin.

As policy will continue to target support at regional airports that can facilitate international connectivity, Sligo Airport will remain ineligible for funding under the new programme.

I am gutted by what the Minister of State said. She said it all. It has been a decade since the airport received any Government funding. She went on to say that funding of airports in contingent on their providing passenger services. Let us consider another airport. Waterford Airport has not had passenger services since June 2016. Let me say, good luck to Waterford Airport; it needs the money to provide its services and it has got it. That is what balanced regional development is - a balance across the regions.

In the time since Sligo Airport last received funding, Waterford Airport has received almost €5 million. In the past, the Tánaiste has said that he absolutely supports the decision of Government to grant €5 million to Waterford Airport. It needs to be borne in mind that Waterford Airport must stay open because it is a Coast Guard base.

A couple of years ago, we were looking at moving it to Cork, but it was not viable. Sligo Airport, therefore, has search and rescue facilities. I again wish Waterford Airport well, as it provides essential services, but so does Sligo Airport in the north-west. If it is starved of funds, then that service will not be there. We will not have search and rescue or medical evacuation for critically ill patients who require it. The Minister of State may be dealing with a plan for regional airports, but if Sligo Airport is neglected and if she does not look at maintaining the services there, that will be a slap in the face for the people of the region. She will be stating, in effect, that the region from Clifden, in her county of Galway, to Belfast does not deserve a search and rescue operation.

I hear what the Deputy said. The Government fully recognises and acknowledges the contribution Sligo Airport makes to the search and rescue service. However, CHC Ireland, as the operator, is fully responsible for agreeing operational arrangements with all the airports involved in the delivery of the search and rescue service, including Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo. In that context, neither the Department nor the Coast Guard have contractual arrangements with the airports concerned. CHC Ireland uses the facilities provided by Sligo Airport to provide part of the service, and the arrangements in that regard are a matter for CHC Ireland and the airport.

That aside, I advise that the Coast Guard, having been made aware of the potential challenges facing Sligo Airport, has requested CHC Ireland to monitor the situation and to alert it if the evolving situation creates issues for service delivery. I also assure the Deputy that the Coast Guard will continue to assess the situation in conjunction with CHC Ireland and I will consider matters again if the situation changes. Regarding the question of funding, as I advised her, I hope to publish a new regional airports programme for the period from 2021 to 2025 by the end of this year. As policy will continue to target support for regional airports which can facilitate international connectivity, however, Sligo Airport will remain ineligible for funding under the new programme.

The Dáil adjourned at 8.53 p.m. until 9.15 a.m. on Wednesday, 16 December 2020.