Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Flood Risk Assessments

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this very important issue. A very serious situation has arisen as a result of the continually rising waters of Lough Funshinagh in County Roscommon, with three homes and farmyards under imminent threat of flooding. There is a risk to a total of seven homes and six farmyards due to the elevated levels of this turlough. As of 4 January 2021, levels are 1.75 m higher than on the same date last year, which was itself a record level. The bulk of the winter rainfall has yet to come. In normal circumstances, the level of water in this former turlough does not peak until March each year. As a result, families who are already being impacted by Covid-19 restrictions are under additional untold psychological pressure as the flood waters outside their doors inch closer and closer.

After my appointment as a Minister in the previous Government, I engaged the Geological Survey of Ireland, GSI, to assess exactly what was happening with this turlough. The GSI completed a very detailed hydrogeological analysis of Lough Funshinagh. It is now imperative that a comprehensive review of the GSI work is carried out to incorporate the current situation, thus providing revised flood maps to take into account the fact that this turlough is now rising year on year and properties which would not have been considered to be under threat up to now, based on the original assessment, are now incorporated into this re-evaluation, due to the changing hydrology of the area. It was clear from the study that the turlough would not rectify itself and as a result, working with the former Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Kevin Boxer Moran, I ensured that funding was provided to Roscommon County Council to appoint consultants to conduct a comprehensive analysis of potential solutions to address the flooding situation within the catchment of Lough Funshinagh. The consultant's report was published last September and indicated that the cost-benefit assessment did not justify the construction of an outlet for the excess water. However, the situation has changed dramatically since then, with the unimaginable prospect that this year could see all previous flood record levels broken. As a result, there must now be a complete review of the original cost-benefit analysis for the overflow pipe from Lough Funshinagh to Lough Ree. Such a review should not be completed in advance of the aforementioned revised mapping exercise based on the GSI data or the development by the Office of Public Works, OPW, of a revised cost-benefit analysis mechanism that clearly reflects the unique challenges of turlough flooding which is not accounted for in the current cost-benefit analysis.

Also required is the reopening of the voluntary home relocation scheme; the establishment of a voluntary farmyard relocation scheme as agreed by Cabinet in 2016; specific funding provisions to help address the farming challenges within the catchment of the lough arising from the dramatic change in water levels including, at the very minimum, a mechanism to allow famers, as a force majeure measure, to start their basic payment scheme entitlements; and the complete reassessment by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, of the special area of conservation, SAC, and national heritage area, NHA, designations in light of the permanent flooding of the turlough that has caused the destruction of all trees, shrubs and grassland as well as the rare plants in the area which, together, gave the turlough its unique status as an SAC and NHA designated area.

We need a comprehensive assessment and a long-term solution to this problem. We cannot, under any circumstances, continue in a piecemeal fashion, relocating one or two properties every year until the existing community is completely relocated.

I thank Deputy Naughten. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, has asked me to apologise on his behalf. He cannot be here to contribute to this debate in person for reasons related to the pandemic. I understand that he has been in contact with the Deputy regarding this matter on a number of occasions since 4 January. The Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Deputy O'Donovan, and I are very aware of the significant impact on communities and distress arising from flooding and the continuing risk of flooding. I have seen at first hand the impact of flooding on people and their homes and farms and I convey my deepest sympathy to all of those in the area who are being affected by flooding and the risk of flooding from Lough Funshinagh.

Local flooding issues are, in the first instance, a matter for each local authority to investigate and address. All local authorities, including Roscommon County Council, may carry out flood mitigation works within their own capital works programmes and using their own resources or apply for funding under the Office of Public Works, OPW's minor flood mitigation works scheme.

With regard to Lough Funshinagh, Roscommon County Council applied for funding to carry out a study, funded by the minor flood mitigation works scheme, to establish if there were some environmentally acceptable measures which would provide a suitable benefit in light of their cost and which could be taken to protect the properties that flooded in the Lough Funshinagh area from a flood of a similar magnitude to that which occurred in 2016. A range of flood mitigation options were considered in the study, but it was determined that the options were not economically or environmentally sustainable. The study identified that the extreme high-water levels, while rare, are within the naturally occurring range. There is no evidence to suggest that the flooding was due to an abnormal decrease in the outflow rate from the lough other than that due to the possible seasonal variation in the subsurface water level.

It remains open to Roscommon County Council to make an application under the minor flood mitigation works scheme should further measures be identified in the future which meet the scheme criteria to mitigate flooding.

The applications of those property owners in the locality of the lough who have applied for the Government's voluntary homeowners relocation scheme are being advanced. For those farmers whose land and farm buildings have flooded and are at risk, I understand that the introduction of a voluntary farm building relocation scheme is being progressed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I understand that the Deputy has been in contact with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in this regard and in respect of measures to help address the farming challenges within the catchment of the lough. I am advised by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that it continues to monitor the situation with regard to the flooding of farmland in general and of farmyards, where it arises. A study to determine the feasibility of any future once-off targeted schemes for voluntary farm building relocation is being undertaken. The Department has evaluated a range of at-risk farmyards impacted by flooding to see if any alternative remedial works can be undertaken to protect farm buildings at risk of flooding. It is currently considering this evaluation.

The Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy O'Donovan, had two meetings with the chairman of the OPW and senior officials on this matter yesterday. The OPW will be meeting with Roscommon County Council shortly and, through the council, with all relevant stakeholders with a view to considering ways to address the flooding problem. I am assured that, should an application to the OPW's minor flood mitigation works scheme be received from the council, it will be assessed as soon as possible.

I am grateful to all of those who have contributed on this important matter. I fully appreciate the impact flooding around Lough Funshinagh is having on the people and properties in this area.

Minor works are no good here. I ask the Minister of State to take the six suggestions I have put to him back to the Minister and to feed them into the meetings that are going to take place next week.

The Minister of State represents the Green Party and a senior Minister of that party, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is here as well. There is something their colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, can do regarding this issue. Prior to 2015, the turlough flooded to predictable levels in winter and drained in the summer. Peak winter levels varied by no more than 1.5 m between very dry years and very wet years. The flood pattern allowed for the rare plants outlined in the turlough's designation as an SAC to flourish. From the winter of 2015 to the present day, however, the turlough has effectively become a lake with the summer level now at a height equivalent to the extremely high winter level. The current destruction of all plant life cannot be allowed to continue as it calls into question the status of the lake as a protected area. It was the responsibility of the State to ensure the protection of the turlough. Surely, it is now the responsibility of the State to restore it to its natural equilibrium. The other option is to do nothing, which will lead to the total and permanent destruction of the habitat and the turlough, which would surely contravene EU directives on turloughs and SACs. The other alternative is to de-designate the lake area as an SAC because of the failure to maintain the water levels at the turlough's designated levels.

We should examine the option of constructing an overflow pipe. This has been costed at approximately €1.3 million. This is a far more cost-effective option than the destruction of the turlough and the relocation of seven families and farmyards at a total cost in excess of €3 million. I plead with the Minister of State to talk with Deputy Noonan in this regard.

My party leader is indeed here beside me so I am being watched but I will take Deputy Naughten's six suggestions back to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan. The Deputy clearly cares very strongly about this issue and it is clear that he has engaged extensively with a number of Ministers on this matter. He has also been talking to Deputies Fitzmaurice and Kerrane and Senators Dolan and Murphy and is keeping them all up to date on this matter. He is clearly putting in a lot of effort. I commit to speaking to my good friend, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. He has responsibility for heritage, designations and so on. I will act as interlocutor between the Minister of State and the Deputy. That is no problem. I look forward to the meeting between Roscommon County Council and all stakeholders with regard to Lough Funshinagh. I hope they can identify solutions to mitigate the flood risk in the area and, in this way, address the significant concerns of the community living in the vicinity of the lough. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.

National Broadband Plan

I thank the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for coming in and taking this debate. The national broadband plan is very significant. It is the rural electrification of its time. Broadband is as important in this modern age as electricity was decades ago. I refer to high-quality fibre broadband in particular because of its speed and the amount of data it can carry. I am the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks. We held hearings with National Broadband Ireland and Eir. Today I wish to deal specifically with my own constituency, which includes parts of Limerick and north Tipperary. National Broadband Ireland is rolling out service to more than 21,000 homes, businesses and schools in Limerick. Furthermore, they have already done advance work on 4,000 premises in areas of Limerick such as Mungret, Patrickswell, Crecora, Castleconnell and Caherconlish. There are two areas on which I want to touch.

We are at a point where, with remote working as a result of the Covid pandemic, we need to expedite the national broadband plan. That plan is to deal with the amber areas that have not been dealt with by commercial operators. I know the Minister has spoken about bringing it back from seven years to five years. Peter Hendrick, the CEO of National Broadband Ireland has appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks. I believe National Broadband Ireland is of a like mind. I ask the Minister to reaffirm that commitment. Could it be even faster?

Amber areas were not covered by commercial operators and are the areas where National Broadband Ireland is due to roll out a broadband service under the national broadband plan. Some are also adjacent to blue areas. In many areas in my constituency, such as Murroe, Newport, Lisnagry, Castleconnell, Caherconlish and Mungret, people in an amber area can look over their ditch and see their neighbour in the blue area with fibre broadband in place. They may be two or three years down the road with the way it is being rolled out.

Representatives of Eir and National Broadband Ireland have appeared before the committee. We have asked them to talk to each other. There is no reason why arrangements could not be made between National Broadband Ireland and Eir to fast-track these amber areas that are directly adjacent to blue areas so that they can be connected as a priority. Our understanding is there is nothing to prohibit that under the National Broadband Ireland contract. Would the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications support that?

Government policy should seek to fast-track the provision of fibre broadband under the National Broadband Ireland plan by a joint venture between National Broadband Ireland and Eir on the blue areas. We should also look to expedite the roll-out of the national broadband plan at least from seven years to five years. A further ambitious target of less than five years could be set. The number of people working from home has increased during the Covid pandemic and will now become mainstream. Having people working from home will enable them to live in rural areas while being able to communicate with New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and other areas without needing to leave their front room.

The national broadband plan contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in November 2019 to roll out a high-speed and future-proofed broadband network within the intervention area, which covers 1.1 million people living and working in more than 544,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms along with 695 schools.

The national broadband plan will ensure that citizens throughout the country have access to high-speed broadband services and nobody is left without this vital service. The national broadband plan network will offer users a high-speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500 Mbps from the outset. This represents an increase from the 150 Mbps committed to under the contract.

The high-speed broadband map, which is available at www.broadband.gov.ie, shows the areas which will be included in the national broadband plan State-led intervention, as well as areas targeted by commercial operators. I am advised that construction in all counties will commence in the first two years and over 90% of premises in the State will have access to high-speed broadband within the next four years.

Despite the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, NBI has made steady progress on initial works. I am advised by NBI that as of 8 January 2021, over 158,000 premises across 26 counties have been surveyed, which is ahead of schedule. The next step is for NBI to develop network designs to deliver the new fibre-to-the-home network to these premises and substantial design work is under way.

Build work has started in rural parts of Cork, Limerick, Cavan and Galway. The first fibre-to-the-home connections are connected and are in a test-and-trial phase in Carrigaline, County Cork. They will be subject to technical testing and validation prior to a wider release in the area. In the coming months retailers will be able to resell the service and householders in these areas will be able to order high-speed broadband provided via the NBI network. A test-and-trial phase in Cavan and Galway will also commence shortly.

Further details on specific areas are available through the NBI website which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register their interest in being provided with deployment updates. Individuals who register with this facility will receive regular updates on progress by NBI on delivering the network and specific updates related to their own premises when works are due to commence.

Broadband connection points, BCPs, are a key element of the national broadband plan providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre-to-the-home network. As of 21 December, 241 publicly accessible sites have been installed by NBI and the high-speed broadband service will be switched on in these locations through service provider contracts managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development for publicly available sites and by the Department of Education for schools.

School BCPs will be provided with high-speed broadband for educational use only and some 70 schools will be connected by the end of January through service provider contracts managed by the Department of Education. An acceleration of this aspect of the project announced in December will see almost 700 primary schools connected to high-speed broadband by 2022, well ahead of the original target delivery timeframe of 2026. My Department continues to work with the Department of Education to prioritise other schools with no high-speed broadband for connection over the term of the national broadband plan. Further details are available on the NBI website at https://nbi.ie/primary-schools-list/.

While substantial progress has been made to date, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on the delivery of the fibre network. The extent of this impact is currently being assessed and NBI has committed to put in place measures to mitigate the impact as much as possible.

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of good reliable broadband to ensure that citizens across Ireland can avail of remote working, education and other essential online facilities. This is reflected in the commitments in the programme for Government where delivery of the national broadband plan will be a key enabler to many of the policies envisaged particularly relating to increased levels of remote working.

I ask the Minister to deal with the specific questions. Would the Minister support Eir and NBI coming together to expedite the roll-out of fibre broadband in the amber areas that are alongside blue areas where Eir has already rolled out broadband? People are looking over the ditch to their neighbours who have broadband and they do not, and they could be waiting two or three years.

Can the roll-out of broadband be expedited from seven years to five years? The Minister spoke about people working from home during the Covid pandemic. They need state-of-the-art fibre broadband to be able to work and communicate worldwide.

National Broadband Ireland has committed to provide a facility whereby people can key in their Eircode postcode and be told when they will get their broadband connection. At the moment they know that in general terms but not the specifics.

I agree completely with Deputy O'Donnell about co-ordinating in neighbouring areas. Obviously, we would like to see the commercial operators being able to ensure that every single house in the State is covered. There may be efficiencies in dovetailing. That is a commercial matter for Eir or the other commercial operators, such as SIRO, Virgin Media and others. I confirm that I would like to see that being co-ordinated but it is a commercial decision for the companies involved.

It is in everyone's interest, including that of NBI, for the roll-out to be accelerated and we will push that to the maximum extent we can. The Covid pandemic is affecting delivery as it is affecting every business with people out of work owing to being close contacts or for other reasons. A lag of several months occurred last year when contractors were not able to come in through the UK. That is probably the biggest restriction to an immediate acceleration. On the other side, the need for broadband as an essential service will help the acceleration. I agree with the Deputy that it is akin in importance to the rural electrification programme. Because of the clear need for it now, in part because of the Covid pandemic, I believe the commercial viability of the operation is significantly enhanced. There will be much greater uptake than otherwise would have been the case. I believe that can be a key driver in development.

It is critical that my Department does whatever it can.

Local government also has a role in the next phase, which will see a move from surveying to building out and putting poles in place for the delivery of the service. That role will include being supportive of planning permission for those poles and helping with their deployment, as well as the opening of ducting, where necessary, to allow the acceleration of the process. We in government will work with local authorities to do everything we can to help in this roll-out. It is not going to move as fast as we would have liked because of Covid-19 but I am confident that once we move out of these immediate difficulties we will see rapid acceleration in this process.

The Deputy's proposal regarding the website seems eminently sensible. It would give customers a quick and easy way of assessing what the timeline is for their areas. I will pass on that suggestion, via the Department, to the company, and I think it would be a good way of using our Eircode system to give greater certainty in this regard.

Maternity Services

I wish to raise an issue today with the Department of Health and its Minister. While I acknowledge they are well aware of the issue, it is so important that it is worth highlighting again. My constituency of Dublin Central is home to the Rotunda Hospital, which is the busiest maternity hospital in Europe. In 2019, more than 8,000 babies were delivered in hospital. In the same year, more than 1,300 of those babies needed to be admitted to neonatal care units. The hospital is run on a break-even budget and incredible care is provided to families at very important moments in life. The hospital has, indeed, won awards for its innovative care practices. All of this is done in a building complex which dates to 1757. The Rotunda Hospital is a much-loved building in Dublin Central, but it is nonetheless an old one. In short, the hospital is trying to provide 21st-century medical care in an 18th-century infrastructural set-up. The situation is now very serious. There is a particular concern regarding the provision of best practice care in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Several reports have pointed to the suboptimal conditions in our maternity hospitals, including inadequate space and outdated facilities. Nowhere is this more critical than in the Rotunda Hospital. The standards of buildings have an impact on the quality of care received and therefore on the outcomes of that care. What we are seeing here is a false economy because the cost to families and the State when things go wrong is well known. HIQA has repeatedly stated that capital investment is needed in modern maternity facilities and buildings, and that that investment must be timely. Babies in neonatal care are the most vulnerable patients I can think of. The current position in respect of the physical infrastructure in the Rotunda Hospital is not best practice in neonatal intensive care facilities, particularly in respect of infection control, which is so meaningful for all of us at present.

I implore the HSE and the Minister for Health to address overcrowding in the Rotunda Hospital, and especially in the neonatal intensive care unit, NICU, in the short to medium term. In 2019, the director of the Rotunda Hospital warned that the overcrowding was an intolerable patient safety crisis. The Rotunda Hospital takes babies from all over Ireland into its care. The staff there are doing their best but they are now doing their best under unacceptable conditions.

The management of the Rotunda Hospital has a plan to tackle this urgent need. I am aware that in the long term, maternity services will be moved to the campus of Connolly Hospital. The 1,300 babies who need care every year, however, must be safe and cared for now and to the best of our ability. They cannot wait for 15 to 20 years. There is a significant business and medical case for the immediate development of a critical care wing on Parnell Square, which could mitigate current risks in the medium term. This would be compliant with Government policy and has already been approved by the planning department of Dublin City Council. The estimated cost of that wing is €61 million, though I accept that procurement costs are difficult to ascertain and be certain about now.

I acknowledge there is a long-term plan to move the Rotunda Hospital but investing in a medical care building now would still be an efficient use of public money. The inner city would have a high-quality medical building for use in perpetuity. We would get 15 to 20 years of safe NICU care for our most vulnerable babies, and it is really only the commissioning costs of less than €5 million that would be non-transferable. This is an excellent business case for the wing. As we have heard this week, we have not always cared in Ireland for our most vulnerable children in the way that we should. I hope the HSE, the Minister for Health and the Minister of State present will consider my points.

I thank Deputy Hourigan for raising this important matter. I can be forgiven for saying that I am particularly pleased to hear her raising this issue, because I was born in that same hospital, though a little bit after 1757. I call the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte.

I thank Deputy Hourigan for raising what the Ceann Comhairle has noted is a valuable topic. I am taking this issue on behalf of the Minister for Health, whose script I have to hand. I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position in relation to neonatology services at the Rotunda Hospital. As the House is aware, the Rotunda is one of the world's oldest maternity hospitals and one of the busiest such hospitals in Ireland. More than 8,000 babies, and one in four of all babies requiring neonatal intensive care in Ireland, are born there annually. Consequently, the Rotunda cares for the most vulnerable and fragile infants at the very extremes of prematurity, as well as sick babies with very complex needs. The challenges faced by the Rotunda to provide such critical services are well documented, and were also well detailed by Deputy Hourigan.

In particular, given the age of the buildings, the infrastructure of the hospital presents significant difficulties in terms of infection prevention control and patient safety. The Deputy is aware that in the medium term, the Rotunda will be co-located with Connolly Hospital. This is in line with Government policy, as articulated in the national maternity strategy. To ensure the provision of optimum and safe services, that policy states that all stand-alone maternity hospitals should be co-located with adult acute hospitals. The relocation of the Rotunda Hospital to the campus of Connolly Hospital is included as a commitment in the programme for Government.

The health and safety of mothers and babies in our care is always of the utmost priority. It is acknowledged that there is a need, in the short term, to address the highest infrastructural risks and capacity issues at the existing hospital on Parnell Square. However, given the plans to redevelop the Rotunda Hospital, we must ensure that any interim development and investment must be limited to the extent necessary to address priority patient safety risks. There has been significant engagement between the Department of Health, the HSE and the management of the Rotunda Hospital in an attempt to clarify the scope and extent of the developments needed at the Rotunda Hospital to resolve patient safety risks arising from infrastructural challenges at the hospital.

In 2020, €4.6 million was provided to the Rotunda Hospital to address capacity and infrastructural needs in the foetal assessment unit, neonatal intensive care unit, emergency theatre and delivery suites. Given the age and condition of the original hospital buildings, however, other issues remain. In that context, the management of the Rotunda Hospital has proposed a new development which will address identified key clinical risks. Additional funding of €100,000 was provided to the Rotunda Hospital in 2020 to prepare a strategic assessment report and preliminary business case in support of the proposed development, as required under the public spending code. I am advised that these reports have now been submitted to the HSE and are under consideration.

I also understand that the HSE intends to allocate additional capital funding of €250,000 to the Rotunda Hospital this year to further assist with the progress of proposals to address areas of critical risk with a particular focus on the neonatal intensive care unit. This investment will help ensure that the hospital is facilitated to make the necessary plans to ensure the babies born in the Rotunda Hospital continue to receive the safest, high-quality specialised care possible in advance of the hospital's move to the campus of Connolly Hospital.

I share the Ceann Comhairle's fondness for the Rotunda. All three of my children were born there, one with only seconds to spare. It is a place which is very special to many of us. I welcome the response from the Minister of State. The Department of Health has engaged with the management of the Rotunda Hospital. We welcome that engagement. To be clear, the best practice in neonatal intensive care units is that every child would have 16 sq. m. In the Rotunda Hospital now, the space available is 5 sq. m., and that impacts on children's care, as well as how much a mother can engage with her child and how many people can be in the room. It is, therefore, an urgent and serious situation.

I have a specific request. The Minister for Health and the HSE can see that there is a viable business case here and a medical argument in respect of a medical care wing being attached to the Rotunda Hospital, even given the deadline for the move to the campus of Connolly Hospital.

Fifteen to 20 years is a long time to have a difference of that kind of space of 16 sq. m, versus 5 sq. m for those incredibly vulnerable babies. I am also aware that the Department and the HSE have a number of processes to go through for cost-benefit analysis before they would consider something like this or give it the green light, which is as it should be. For the project to proceed, one of the first steps is to complete gate 2 of the public spending code, which is the completion of a final business case and initial planning document and design. This requires financial support of, I believe, more than €250,000. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for giving her time today to answer this. Perhaps the Minister of State could communicate back to the Minister for Health our genuine request that the Department and the HSE would consider supporting even this next stage of gate 2 of the public spending code in order that we can at least move forward with the cost benefit analysis for the neonatal intensive care unit, NICU.

I will take on board exactly what Deputy Hourigan has requested here this evening. I will articulate it to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly. Perhaps I could facilitate a meeting between Deputy Hourigan, the Minister and our new Secretary General, acting in the Department of Health, who has come from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and who would have a really good understanding of the gate 2 process the Deputy has referred to.

I thank the Minister of State for that helpful response.

Standards in Public Office Commission

Our next Topical Issues matter is the relocation of Leave.EU from the UK and the regulation of its activities as per Irish electoral law.

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to raise this extremely serious issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte and the Minister. When reports came out that Leave.EU had relocated or temporarily registered its location from Bristol to Waterford many people met the news with a sense of wry irony that an organisation that has spent the past number of years campaigning to leave the EU is seeking to remain within the EU in order to retain its favourable Internet rating and its brand.

Let us be under no illusion, however, this is an absolutely toxic brand. This group has wreaked absolute misery on the United Kingdom and around for many years. Beyond Brexit the group has traded an absolutely toxic brand of campaigns and politics, be it on immigration, on the relationship with the media or directed at personal individuals, including Ministers in our own Government. It also trades in senseless and baseless xenophobia the likes of which we in this country should not and do not have any time for.

When we look at this toxic brand of campaigning are we looking to see if the toxic brand of campaigning is being exported here? Is the group looking to locate themselves in Waterford to ascertain a flag of convenience and to maintain the prevalence in Internet searches and so much else? I have already raised a number of concerns with the relevant bodies at Irish and EU level with regard to the group's domain name registration and its accounts and status with the Revenue Commissioners, and crucially around the storage of data. This organisation has access to data of tens of thousands of individuals in the United Kingdom and beyond, and it must be ensured that these data are stored in a way that is compliant with the general data protection regulation, GDPR, even though the UK has left the EU.

When an organisation like this seeks to move around, even just as a flag of convenience or to export its toxic brand of campaigning, it absolutely requires a serious level of scrutiny by Government and by the authorities therein. I ask the Minister and the Department to give that level of scrutiny. This organisation trades in controversy and misery. The group has been levied with numerous fines in the United Kingdom for its campaigning activity, for its storage of data and for funding. The group has associations with quite dubious characters, inside and outside the organisation, which merit serious concern. The group is connected, directly and indirectly, with some of the scary events that unfolded in Washington DC last week and this should not be dismissed out of hand. While the people who run this organisation seek to mock those who question their authority and seek to dismiss any concerns, ultimately resorting to the level of insults one would not find in the schoolyard, we need to keep that level of scrutiny absolutely rigorous. We need to shine a light and put up a probe. I believe that this organisation is a threat to our democracy. It is a politically subversive organisation that, if it was allowed to gain a foothold in our democracy, would have a detrimental effect. We cannot dismiss this lightly. We must provide that scrutiny. I implore the Minister and the Government to make sure that Leave.EU, quite simply, is not welcome in Ireland.

I thank Deputy Richmond for raising this question. I hope my answer addresses the question the Deputy has asked. I am here to represent the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien.

As Members of the House will be aware, the Electoral Act 1997, as amended, provides the statutory framework for dealing with political donations and sets out the regulatory regime covering a wide range of interrelated issues such as the setting of limits of permissible donations, the prohibition of certain donations, the disclosure of donations and the registration of third parties who accept donations given for political purpose that exceed €100.

The Act also provides for the independent supervision of these provisions by the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, which has published a number of detailed guidance documents to clearly inform candidates standing for election, Members of the Oireachtas, members of the European Parliament, political parties, corporate donors and third parties of their obligations under the Act. At its very core, the Act has the objective of ensuring that there is transparency in how our political parties and the wider political system is funded, matters that are crucial to the functioning of our democracy. Important features of the legislation include relatively low donation thresholds, a prohibition on foreign donations and restrictions on the amounts that may be received from corporate donations.

Notwithstanding the existing legislative provision, the Government is committed to progress the commitment in the programme for Government to review our current electoral laws and the conduct of politics in Ireland to ensure that donations or resources from non-citizens outside the State are not being utilised to influence our elections and political process. We will legislate to prevent this if necessary. These matters are directly relevant to the political donations regime as provided for in the Act. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has stated in this House that he intends to bring forward an electoral reform Bill that will, among other matters, establish an independent statutory electoral commission by the end of this year. The general scheme of the Bill was published last week and was circulated for pre-legislative consideration. One of the functions that will be assigned to the electoral commission from the outset will be a policy research and advisory function that will inform and advise the Government and the Oireachtas in their consideration of reform of our electoral laws. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is of the view that one of the first items of research the commission could be asked to undertake would be a comprehensive review of the entire Electoral Act 1997. It is likely that such a review could be completed within a relatively short timeframe following the establishment of the commission.

I thank the Minister of State for the full and accurate reply, which certainly addressed some of my concerns. I appreciate that some of my concerns and the area I ask about do not fall under the remit of the Minister to whom this matter has been put forward. Some interesting points that will become very relevant in this regard have been made by the Minister on the role of corporate donations, of donation limits, of foreign donations and of influence outside the State on our electoral politics. I want to make sure they are in any review of the commission that may come forward. I have referred the organisation to SIPO. I hope the Minister of State will ask the Minister to also engage with SIPO where appropriate. I hope this will not just cover political parties, elected representatives and those seeking election, as mentioned by the Minister of State. It must also include campaign organisations and bodies, as well as campaign bodies that seek to base themselves in this State even though their activities are either stateless or, more pertinently in this account, are focused on a different jurisdiction. This is a real concern and I hope the Minister of State will engage with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien and with SIPO on this. This entity, which has an extremely dubious past in fundraising, in storing data and in the pure hate it spouts, is trying to relocate to the State for convenience or for opportunity.

We must ensure that the standards to which we hold all organisations already in the State are applied to this organisation. If it is unable to meet those standards, it should be closed down, shut down and told it is not welcome and should not to come back.

I thank Deputy Richmond for sharing the knowledge and the depth of understanding he has on this organisation. While my answer deals with electoral law, the issue of campaigning bodies is something I will bring back to the Minister. I will conclude by reading the Minister's remarks into the record. I again thank the Deputy for raising this important issue.

As already indicated, our political donation regime is designed to maintain transparency in respect of our political process and to ensure the integrity of our elections in order that they remain fair and free from any foreign or hidden influence. The Government is committed to reviewing our current electoral laws and the conduct of politics in Ireland to ensure donations and resources from non-citizens outside the State are not being utilised to influence our elections and political process. The electoral commission that is to be established will be able to contribute to such a review. I expect that any review will not only deliver a wide range of recommendations aiming to strengthen our electoral laws and ensure political donations and resources from non-citizens resident outside the State are not being used to influence our elections and democratic process, among other matters, but will also inform the further transfer of functions to the electoral commission.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.42 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 20 January 2021.