Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Transport

I thank the Minister for attending. We know it is an ungodly hour. We have had issues with school places in recent years, and today I looked through my records going back to 2017. We also have a problem with school transport. The Minister is well aware of the over-subscription for schools, in particular schools in Midleton, Youghal, Cobh and Carrigtwohill. There has been a lot of juggling in recent weeks trying to get people into schools.

I want to give three examples of the problems. One letter, which is a bit ironic, states:

I am a bit confused as to why there is an assumption that attending a school in County Waterford would have regard for family ethos. We live in County Cork in St. Catherine's Parish. Curraglass national school is where we cast our electoral votes.

The Department replied that this family's application has been processed, the child is not eligible for school transport as it is not the nearest school to the family’s home and that, having regard to ethos and language, the nearest school to their home is in Tallow, County Waterford. It is ridiculous that they cannot get a school place and have to send the child to a different county.

Another letter states that the son had been offered a first year place, after a long stressful wait, in the next village from Midleton, which is Carrigtwohill. Unfortunately, as they had not chosen the nearest school, they will not be able to access the Bus Éireann bus as the school does not qualify.

A lady writes of a situation where most of the siblings in the family had gone to school in Midleton from Killeagh, which is the other side of Castlemartyr, between Youghal and Midleton. Now, the last child has been told they will have to go to school in Youghal.

There is a lot of stress and confusion because people cannot go to the school nearest to them. Is there any way the Department, Bus Éireann or whoever operates these buses can come up with a common-sense solution and deal with these cases individually?

I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter and thank the Minister for being here at this late hour. The Minister is aware of the pressures in east Cork with respect to secondary school places. To give an example, one woman was told earlier this year that her daughter was placed in one school at No. 274 on the waiting list, at No. 256 in another school and at No. 124 in another school, and she had applied to all three. Obviously, the stress and strain of that is enormous and that is only one family out of hundreds.

I acknowledge the work that has been done in the last while by the Minister and her officials, school principals and the education and training board with respect to making extra school places available. However, as the Minister will understand, parents accepted the first place they were offered when they saw the length of the waiting lists. They were not aware that being placed on a waiting list is considered a refusal to admit and can be appealed, so most of them had not appealed. Before they use a section 29 appeal, they should get a review from the board of management, but parents do not know that, or that it must be made within 21 days and that the appeal has to be done within 63 days. One would almost have to be a barrister to follow how the appeal system works, and this is before they can go and look for school transport. It is extremely complicated.

As I have suggested previously, in the first instance, the Minister might consider having Carrigtwohill and Midleton as one education centre for school transport. At a stroke, that would solve a whole range of problems for parents who are faced with having to drive children to school because they did not get into the nearest school because they did not appeal, or because they did not do a section 29 appeal, and so on and so forth. Parents have been stressed all year, and this involves hundreds of parents and families because of the waiting lists.

I am glad the Minister is present. I am still not sure that all the students that applied have places and, from what I can figure out, there could be 50, 60 or 70 students without places for September. I would like the Minister to take note of that and to again go back to her officials to check it out.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. Before I address the specific issues raised, I would like to provide Members with an outline of the extent of the school transport service and what it entails.

School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the current school year, over 114,000 children, including over 14,700 children with special educational needs, are transported on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country at a cost of over €224.7 million in 2020.

The purpose of the Department's school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children who reside remote from their nearest school. Under the terms of the primary and post-primary scheme, children are eligible for school transport if they satisfy the distance criteria and are attending their nearest school or education centre as determined by the Department or Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language.

All children who are eligible for school transport and who complete the application and payment process on time will be accommodated on school transport services for the 2021-22 school year, where such services are in operation. Children who are not eligible for school transport may apply for transport on a concessionary basis only and will be facilitated where spare seats are available after eligible children have been accommodated. Where the number of ineligible children exceeds the number of spare seats available, Bus Éireann allocates tickets for the spare seats using an agreed selection process. Concessionary transport is subject to a number of terms and conditions, including the availability of spare seats on an existing service and payment of the annual charge. Routes will not be extended or altered, additional vehicles will not be introduced, nor will larger vehicles or extra trips using existing vehicles be provided to cater for children travelling on a concessionary basis.

I understand that some parents may have a concern that they would not be considered eligible for transport to the next-nearest school if, due to the enrolment pressures mentioned by the Deputies, their nearest school is full. I would like to reassure them that in cases where the Department is satisfied that the nearest school is full, eligibility for school transport will be determined based on the distance that children reside from their next-nearest school, having regard to ethos and language. If a family has further information in regard to the closest school being full, they should contact the school transport section of the Department.

In October 2019, my predecessor announced a review of the school transport scheme with a view to taking a fresh look at the service and its broader effectiveness and sustainability. Given the evolving situation with Covid-19, the work of the steering group had been delayed. However, an initial meeting of the steering group was recently held in order to recommence the process, which will continue over the coming period. The review is being conducted to ensure that the school transport system is fit for purpose and that it serves students and their families adequately. This review will build on the proposals in the programme for Government as they relate to school transport, including examining the options to reduce car journeys and assessing how the school transport scheme can work in liaison with the Safe Routes to Schools programme; and examining the options for providing better value and a better service for students, including examining issues such as the nearest or next-nearest school, which I know is of particular interest to the Deputies.

It is planned that the steering group will report to me on an interim basis as the review progresses with a view to presenting a final report later this year with recommendations on the future operation of the Department’s school transport scheme.

The steering group will report to me initially on preliminary findings on eligibility before moving to consider and report on broader issues such as the objectives of the scheme and its alignment with other initiatives and wider Government policy. This steering group is due to report to me shortly with its preliminary report. I thank the Deputies for raising this matter and for affording me the opportunity to provide an outline of the extent of the school transport scheme.

Some of this is ironic. I have a reply to a parliamentary question in 2018, and much of the Minister's response is actually in it. The Minister mentioned a review. I am sure she is aware of the document "The East Cork Secondary School Crisis - A Profile of East Cork Population Demographics and Other Rationale". I do not know about her office but the Department definitely has a copy. It might be a handy addition to the steering group. I have three brief questions. Has she a date for when the review will be actually be carried out? How long will the families have to wait? Will it be ready for October 2021 and the enrolment of secondary school places?

I understand where the Minister is coming from but a common sense approach seems to be lacking here. The families are struggling and there is paperwork and more paperwork because someone in the Department cannot figure out that if one school is full, they should go to the other school.

Is the Minister saying that she will ease the requirements with respect to the nearest school criteria for east Cork given the waiting lists there were so long? Application forms for school transport should be submitted by the last Friday in April each year. Many parents did not know what place they had by that date and they still do not know. Then there is the issue of having to repeatedly appeal as I said earlier. Will the Minister relax that? Will she consider putting Carrigtohill and Midleton in one catchment area for the school transport? Would she agree that that would solve a lot of problems immediately?

To support my colleague, Deputy Buckley, can the Minister tell us whether the Department is seriously looking at building another secondary school or opening one in temporary accommodation in September 12 months? The numbers I have seen indicate that we will be back again next year and it will be much worse and one answer would be another second level school. I know Educate Together is looking for one. Will the Minister comment on that?

There have been particular challenges in east Cork but substantial progress has been made in the provision of places in the area. I acknowledge the ongoing goodwill and co-operation from schools on the ground which have very much engaged with the Department in making provision available for September 2021 in allocating places. That is the result of an ongoing engagement which has been proactive and positive.

On Deputy Buckley's queries, as I stated in my reply the work on the review is up and running. There will be an interim report which will be with me in the not-too-distant future and will be in advance of late summer. I am looking at the full report coming on stream by the end of the year. It is a substantial body of work on making sure the provision of transport is as it should be but it will be valuable.

The point was made about people not being sure of the schools that might be available to them to attend. There was always an opportunity for people to make Bus Éireann aware that they had applied to a number of schools and when they were accepted by a particular school they could let it be known then.

Special Educational Needs

Deputy Joan Collins was unable to make it. I will concentrate on Dublin 12 in my constituency but many of the issues impact on the constituencies that border our constituencies. The Minister has been in the House before to hear me speak about Scoil Colm, which will now be opened as Our Lady of Hope as a special school. That has given some hope to parents. However, there is still an under-supply of special schools which is pushing more and more children into special autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes. We hear of reports being written stating a child needs a special class - not a special school - because there is no special school available. Ultimately, the children are losing out because they are not getting the correct educational placement they need. Children who should be in a special school are not getting a special school; their need for one is not being registered and they are taking up spaces in special classes, creating overly long waiting lists. In Dublin 12 there is an added burden because established schools in Dublin 4 and Dublin 6 are not being forced to provide ASD classes, as other schools have been by the Department. There are children in Dublin 4 and Dublin 6 who are completely under-supplied with ASD special classes being pushed into Dublin 12, increasing the waiting lists in Dublin 12 and then children from Dublin 12 are being pushed into Dublin 24. All the problems with school transport that we just heard about are affecting these kids as well. These are kids who need stability, predictability and special classes. The system as it is set up is not serving them and they are losing out.

Much of what I have to say is complementary to what Deputy Costello said but comes at it from a slightly different angle. The main issue I have to raise is access and inclusion model, AIM, staff for children with ASD in early years education at the very start of their national school education. For a Montessori school to take on a child with ASD, it requires AIM staff who have further qualifications than most childcare workers to work one-on-one with the child. It is obviously crucial for children with ASD to attend Montessori preschool and early stages of mainstream education, socialise and get used to a school and communal environment as it is important for their families, parents and guardians. However, many childcare providers and national schools are forced to turn away children with autism as they simply do not have the staff to care for them. One of the big reasons for this is the remuneration for AIM staff is simply not high enough. They are paid €14 an hour which is about €10.85 after tax which is not enough to attract sufficient talent to early years Montessori and senior and junior infant schools across Dublin. As a result providers are forced to turn away children with autism leaving them and their families stuck and out of options as they cannot use their existing staff to work with children. It is unfair for so many reasons. Children with autism have every bit as much right to childcare and an education as any other child, particular in early years and in their first years in primary education. These barriers to entry for children with autism will only disadvantage them as they progress through the national school system. In my area of Dublin Rathdown a family with two young children with autism have been rejected from six childcare providers due to a lack of staff. As they prepare to enter junior infants next September they are unable to establish what national school will be able to accept them.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue as it gives me an opportunity to outline the current position regarding provision for children with special educational needs, including autism.

With regard to the particular case referred to by the Deputies, I am assured by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, that the local special education needs organiser, SENO, is working with this family so that the child concerned is placed in the most suitable school placement and the necessary supports are put in place.

Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority. Children with special educational needs should receive their education in placements that are appropriate to their needs alongside their peers wherever possible unless such an approach would be inconsistent with the best interests of the individual child or other children. This inclusive approach is consistent with the provisions of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. This policy is supported by significant investment on the part of the Government. The State will spend approximately €2 billion, or just under 25% of the entire education budget for 2021, on making additional provision for children with special educational needs this year.

The NCSE has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on education provision for children nationwide. It has well-established structures in place for engaging with schools and parents. The NCSE seeks to ensure that schools in a given area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special education placements. There are planning processes at both national and local levels to ensure the required number of specialist education places come on stream to meet identified need in a timely way. Normally, schools are very willing to respond to the emerging needs in their areas. However, where a shortage of places is identified, the Department of Education works closely with the NCSE and the schools in question to expand provision to meet local need. This collaboration works well. There has been strong collaboration and engagement between the partners in education, the parents and schools in making the provision possible.

The NCSE is working with a significant number of families and schools to secure suitable placements for children with special educational needs. This is important work. I assure the Deputies that it is a priority for all concerned. We will continue to work hand in hand with the partners in education to ensure the individual needs of children are met in the appropriate environment, be it in a special class or a special school.

On some of the points raised by the Deputies, early years education is not my domain but I take the point raised in respect of the need to have appropriately trained staff. Regarding the allocation of staff within the school setting, significant progress is being made in terms of the allocation of special needs assistants. The number of special education teachers is at a significantly higher level, with over 18,000 pupils covered. The same applies to staff with expertise in working with children with additional needs, including children with autism. It must be acknowledged that over one fifth of the budget is rightly being spent in the area of special education.

I thank the Minister. I wanted to raise the similar issue of early years provision. I was saving it for my follow-up question. A family I am trying to do my best to support in my constituency faces a challenge with the Early Start programme, which is under the remit of the Department of Education. The family has a child with a diagnosis of ASD and they are being told there are no special needs assistants available under the Early Start programme. A child in the programme does not get a special needs assistant even if he or she has a diagnosis. That is not good enough. From where I stand, the collaboration the Minister spoke about does not seem to be working very well. There is a domino effect in that children are being bussed out of their own communities into others. The knock-on effect ultimately means that, because some areas are not providing or not being forced to provide the ASD classes they should be providing, other areas and children are suffering.

I thank the Minister for the thorough reply. I ask her and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to collaborate with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, to determine where there is a clear need for a joint approach. When there is early diagnosis and early intervention, children are not getting the supports they need to allow them to enter mainstream education in the best possible way. That is why we need to see support for Montessori workers in the early childhood sector. Equally, we need to see early childhood services, Montessori schools and crèches provided with the opportunities to expand and have the appropriate spaces. I am aware that much of this does not fall directly under the Minister's purview but it will feed straight into the national school system at a very early stage. If we can have the supports provided to the children and, equally, their families at the earliest point, it will allow for a far better educational process for all the children involved.

I appreciate the points made by the Deputies. A positive and proactive approach is being taken in my Department to advancing appropriate provision for children with additional needs. We are very much committed to this. That one fifth of the entire education budget is to be expended on special education is, in itself, a vote of intent indicating our determination to deliver in the area of special education. The Minister of State and I are fully committed to that.

On the points raised on the provision of specific classes in various areas throughout the country, I confirm that all new builds will have specific provision for special classes. This is to ensure that we meet the needs. The provision of additional classes is at a record high but that is not to say there is still not considerable ground to cover. We are committed to covering it.

With regard to the specific case made, if the Deputy wants to bring the details to my attention I will be happy to get my officials to follow up on the matter.

Natural Gas Grid

The Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, is well aware that the midlands is the battle line for decarbonisation following the fast-tracking of the closure of the Bord na Móna peat-production process. The just transition fund was introduced to compensate the midlands and help to ensure it will not be left behind, with its local economy being forced to adjust, as the rest of the country reaps the carbon-reduction benefits.

Thanks to Center Parcs, the gas pipeline was extended to Ballymahon. As we seek to offset the impact of fast-tracked decarbonisation in the midlands while at the same time safeguarding future energy supplies for local industry, it is vital that we seek to extend the pipeline to Longford town and Edgeworthstown. This would facilitate connections to major energy users. There are as many as ten major industries across the two towns, employing nearly 3,000. The pipeline would allow them to reduce their energy emissions, utilise energy efficiently and apply renewable technologies while exploring expansion potential. At least two of the industries are finalising major expansion plans. A positive indication regarding the availability of gas would certainly be welcome at this point. This would take place in tandem with Longford County Council's plans to develop an anaerobic digester in the Lanesborough-Mountdillon area as part of the just transition process following the closure of the local power station. At the heart of the anaerobic digester plan is the determination to deliver renewable energy back to the grid, driven and supported by the local communities most affected by the process of climate action.

This holistic package will help to develop employment opportunities and economic development, enhancing biodiversity and environmental quality while promoting community-based innovations to decarbonise the difficult areas of agriculture and transport. Longford County Council has made a compelling case for the gas line extension to Longford town and Edgeworthstown under the climate change action plan.

I am aware that the application is currently being reviewed by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. The hope is that the proposal will find favour in the next round of capital funding. As it stands, however, the funding gap that exists makes the project unviable without the benefit of capital funding. Members will be aware that we discussed the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 at length in this House over the past two weeks and indeed we have been discussing it for much longer than that. The truth is that this is an innovative, timely proposal from a capable and far-sighted local authority. It has the potential to replace carbon-intensive peat-fired energy production with a carbon neutral energy source and, through the extended gas line, also decarbonise other difficult areas. However, it can only be delivered with investment at scale. It is crucial that the next round of capital funding acknowledge the well articulated case to extend the gas line to Longford and Edgeworthstown.

I appreciate Deputy Flaherty providing me with the opportunity to respond to this important issue. I am answering on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ryan. The routing of gas pipelines, or the connection of towns to the gas pipeline network, are matters for Gas Networks Ireland which is a commercial State-sponsored body under the aegis of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, the statutorily independent energy regulator. Gas Networks Ireland is mandated under section 8 of the Gas Act 1976, as amended, to develop and maintain a system for the supply of natural gas that is both economical and efficient. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities has, since 2002, been charged with all aspects of the assessment and licensing of prospective operators which wish to develop and-or operate a gas distribution system within the State under the Gas (Interim) (Regulation) Act 2002. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, therefore, has no direct statutory function in relation to the connection of towns to the gas network.

The programme for Government commits to an average 7% per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030, which is a 51% reduction over the decade, and to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Any measures taken to reduce energy emissions will be coherent with our overall decarbonisation goals.

The Deputy also raised the issue of how large energy users can reduce their energy emissions, utilise energy efficiencies and apply renewable technologies. In this regard, a range of other supports and schemes for businesses are also funded by the Department under the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. These include the excellence in energy efficiency design, EXEED, grant scheme supporting businesses to undertake design, construction and commissioning projects using the EXEED certification process. It also includes the support scheme for renewable heat, which financially supports businesses in adopting renewable energy for heat, including heat pumps and heating systems using biomass or biogas. Project assistance grants help to fund feasibility studies and business cases for energy performance improvements. They also include SEAI's training, information and advisory services, which include the online, free-to-use SEAI energy academy and the SEAI's large industry energy network where members work together to improve energy performance and share experiences.

While I cannot specifically provide any assurance in relation to extending the gas grid to Longford, I hope that some of the information about how businesses can be supported to reduce their emissions is of benefit to the Deputy.

I will provide further detail on the importance, as the Deputy mentioned, of the just transition. We have a strong programme for Government commitment on the just transition for the midlands region, including the Deputy's home county of Longford, counties Westmeath, Offaly and Roscommon and many other areas currently affected by the transition process and our decarbonisation goals. The ongoing investment in the midlands region and its strengthening will be important for jobs and also in ensuring that communities are brought with us in a constructive, collaborative way.

The Deputy referred to the importance of the just transition and investment in the midlands region. I will provide further detail on that in a moment. I will also bring the specific information about this proposal to the attention of the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State. I know that he appreciates that the proposal from Longford County Council is far-reaching and on the button as we work on climate action and towards our hefty 2030 targets. There is considerable debate in County Longford on the future of the now dormant Lough Ree energy plant. Local man and engineer, John Hanley, has ambitious plans for an energy hub on the site. A transition to a renewable gas network for high energy use industries would certainly create the opportunity to potentially utilise the existing infrastructure at the ESB Lanesborough site. Crucially, the proposal would also increase the attractiveness of Longford as a destination for inward investment in line with identified Project Ireland 2040 rural development initiatives. As the Minister of State correctly said, just transition is important for the midlands but, crucially, it needs to do exactly what it says on the tin. For half a century, Longford and the midlands were the cradle of Ireland's energy production. Extending the gas line, the development of an anaerobic digester and the creation of an alternative energy hub on the grounds of Lough Ree power plant would certainly put the county back centre stage in the quest for decarbonisation.

I thank Deputy Flaherty for the opportunity to respond. As I said, the routing of gas pipelines or the connection of towns to the gas pipeline network are matters for Gas Networks Ireland and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications has no direct statutory function in relation to the connection of towns to the gas network.

The Government is committed to a just transition in the midlands region and has dedicated significant funding to supporting workers, companies and communities. A significant package of supports has been put in place in the midlands for the transition away from peat-fuelled power. This includes €20 million for the midlands retrofitting project, €108 million for the Bord na Móna peatlands restoration project, €25 million for the just transition fund, and €90 million for the National Parks and Wildlife Service peatland scheme. The Government announced provision of funding offers to over 60 projects throughout the region, including private sector and local authority projects for communities to create a strong, green, sustainable economy. These projects will contribute to making the midlands a more attractive and sustainable place to live and work. The Government has signed contracts with 17 projects so far. Some 16 projects are already up and running in the midlands, supported through the fund. They have created 28 full-time jobs and will result in 175 indirect jobs. The five projects in strand two which have received final offers to date are worth €2.5 million. The Department is assisting remaining projects through due diligence and expects these to be finalised in the coming weeks.

The Department will publish a full profile of anticipated expenditure and project impact to the midlands region by the middle of this year. I note the range of supports being developed under the climate action plan, as I set out, for the SEAI to help businesses to decarbonise.

I will raise the important points which the Deputy has outlined with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. The Government takes seriously the whole principle of a just transition and supporting workers, communities and everyone in the midlands region as we go about this change. I appreciate the Deputy prioritising this matter and raising it tonight. I will bring the details to the attention of the Minister.

Sports Organisations

This is a straightforward ask. The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association, IMMAA, which was established in 2017, needs a roadmap in order to get recognition as a national governing body. It has engaged with the Executive in the North, including the former Minister, Ms Carál Ní Chuilín, and the Minister for Communities, Ms Deirdre Hargey. Its engagement in the North has been successful but it wants recognition on an all-Ireland basis. We had the tragic death of João Carvalho. The coroner's report was issued and the recommendations, including the introduction of standardised safety procedures and protocols to mixed martial arts, MMA, events, need to be observed. At this point, the IMMAA is stuck. Deputy Andrews and I will engage with all the stakeholders, which include Sport Ireland, but we need the support of the Government.

My knowledge of and interaction with martial arts and, later, MMA comes through my son. He started with kick-boxing before moving on to boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Thai boxing and then an element of MMA with Sanda MMA and Team Torres. My stepson and I still train with Team Torres. We do Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Unlike my 16-year-old, I was not particularly good but I was always up for it. It provides resilience, fitness and training, particularly for young people who do not necessarily like other sports. It is absolutely necessary that we facilitate this organisation.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in at this late hour. The sport of MMA has grown immensely over the past decade. Participation in MMA in Ireland is very diverse. If one walks into any MMA club, one will see a mix of people ranging from office workers to construction workers, young and old. One will see a real mix of nationalities training side by side. We have also seen the great potential MMA can offer young people through programmes such as the MMA coaching and education programme in Drogheda. The aim of this programme is to provide support for young people caught up in antisocial activity and to help them move off that particular path.

Following the tragic death of João Carvalho in 2016, which has been mentioned, the Coroner's Court recommended the introduction of standardised safety procedures and protocols for MMA events in Ireland in addition to raising the need to expedite the endorsement of a national governing body, NGB, for MMA. The IMMAA, was founded in 2017 and has introduced exceptionally high safety standards for amateur athletes involved in MMA. These standards are properly higher than those for any other contact sport under the remit of Sport Ireland. IMMAA athletes have consistently represented Ireland very strongly. At the 2018 world amateur MMA championships, Ireland came second in the context of the number of medals won. These amateur athletes deserve proper recognition.

There is currently no clear path for the IMMAA to become recognised as an NGB, despite its best efforts. There is an urgent need for the Minister of State to intervene and ensure that equal treatment in the application process is granted to the IMMAA in its quest for NGB status and that the recommendations of the Coroner's Court are implemented. That really is vital. Will the Minister of State outline if and how he will intervene to ensure that the IMMAA receives the equal treatment it deserves?

I thank Deputies Ó Murchú and Andrews for tabling this matter. The death of João Carvalho in 2016 was an extremely tragic event and it is important that we remind ourselves of all four of the coroner's recommendations that followed. It was recommended: that the endorsement of a national governing body for MMA be expedited; that all medical partners be clinical practice guidelines, CPG, providers; that all medical partners engage nationally qualified paramedics; and that, in the short-term, MMA in Ireland adopt the safety standards for boxing. Before discussing the IMMAA's attempt to be recognised as an NGB for sport, it is important to note the coroner's recommendations in respect of health and safety and the medical care of participants and to state that, as we would all agree, it is always of paramount importance that these recommendations be upheld and that all appropriate procedures and protocols are in place to ensure the safety of participants.

Sport Ireland, which is funded by my Department, is the statutory body with responsibility for the development and promotion of sport, increasing participation at all levels and raising standards. It also has responsibility for the recognition of sports and NGBs of sport. Sport Ireland operates a formal recognition process through which organisations can apply to become recognised as an NGB of sport. This is a means for organisations that are not currently recognised to apply for Sport Ireland recognition and, in turn, to receive support and financial investment from Sport Ireland. The recognition process for achieving the status of being an NGB in Ireland is solely a matter for Sport Ireland, which has the legislative responsibility for the development of sport, as set out in the Sport Ireland Act 2015. Further information is set out on its website.

Since the tragic death of João Carvalho in 2016, Sport Ireland has been in ongoing conversations with the IMMAA and the Irish Martial Arts Commission, IMAC, which is the NGB of sport for martial arts in Ireland, with regard to the development of a relationship between both parties. As part of this process, Sport Ireland established a mixed martial arts working group. The working group included decision makers from both organisations, along with an independent chair and an independent facilitator. Following engagement through 2017, the working group produced a final report. The content of the report was agreed by both IMMAA and IMAC. One of the key recommendations of the working group was for "IMMAA to make an application to IMAC at the earliest opportunity to become a member and to seek the technical support and advice of IMAC on putting in place appropriate guidelines for a modern sporting organisation and member discipline." Notwithstanding this key recommendation in 2017, there was no proactive engagement with, or formal application made to IMAC until 2020.

It should be noted that, since the completion of the report, Sport Ireland has remained available to the IMMAA and has met with representatives of both it and its international federation on a number of occasions throughout 2018, 2019 and 2020. Each NGB establishes its own criteria for potential affiliates as independent autonomous organisations. A primary requirement for IMAC affiliation is that the organisation's international federation be a member of the Global Association of International Sports Federations. This is also a minimum criterion with the Sport Ireland recognition criteria. While Sport Ireland does not work directly with international federations, it is aware that a mixed martial arts federation has been unsuccessful in its application for membership of the Global Association of International Sports Federations.

In April 2021, Sport Ireland undertook to recommence the work of the working group. The same independent chair, Professor Jack Anderson, and independent facilitator, Morgan Buckley, will support the work of the group. The preparation work of the working group has commenced, with all parties having agreed to take part in the process. Further meetings involving IMAC and the IMMAA are scheduled for June.

As I said previously, I have no direct role in the recognition of national governing bodies of sport. However, I assure the Deputies that Sport Ireland, as the statutory body with responsibility for such matters, has been engaging with the IMMAA since 2016 and will continue to do so. As I said, that is the process. The Deputies asked about that. I believe we are all agreed that we would like to see progress and clarity on this issue.

We all accept that safety is paramount. We accept what the Minister of State has said with regard to the working group, the process and the engagement to date. However, the IMMAA believes that it is caught and that there are obstacles in its way. The Minister of State spoke about the Global Association of International Sports Federations, GAISF, requirement. This association believes that the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation, IMMAF, will get authorisation as a global organisation but 50% of the organisations within IMAC do not have that recognition. The IMMAA believes this is an obstacle being put up unnecessarily. We are going to engage with Sport Ireland and it is our intention to support this to the end, ensuring that safety remains paramount, but we are calling for the support of Government and of the Minister of State. I accept that he cannot intervene but I ask him for some general support and to do what he can.

While I welcome the establishment of a working group on this issue, I really do feel that the process is being used to block recognition of the IMMAA. It is only through meaningful engagement that we will see the IMMAA progress towards NGB status under Sport Ireland. This would give people involved in this sport and those representing Ireland internationally the recognition they deserve and show that their sport is being treated equally. However, I have deep concerns as to how genuine these engagements will be when language such as the following is being used by some of those centrally involved in the application process. This information was obtained through a freedom of information request. It was said that MMA, in its current form, is not a sport, and, like dog fighting, did not deserve to be legitimised. Another comment described amateur MMA as "pornographic, sadistic and voyeuristic to its core." Does the Minister of State believe that is appropriate language to use in describing MMA and those who represent Ireland internationally? There is an element of snobbery involved. The old boys' club will not let MMA in.

I accept the bona fides of both Deputies in wanting to get progress on this issue.

Sport Ireland has been engaging continually with the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association since 2016 on the issue.

In March 2020, the IMMAA made an application for affiliation to IMAC and Sport Ireland welcomed this application. The development of a formal relationship with IMAC remains the recommended avenue and pathway to advance this. The application was also in line with both the recommendations of the working group and the Sport Ireland recognition criteria. Given the status of the international federation as a primary requirement of IMAC affiliation, the initial IMMAA application was unsuccessful. In November 2020, Sport Ireland met representatives of the IMMAA to discuss the development of the IMAC application. Sport Ireland recommended that the IMMAA continued to engage with IMAC on the broader affiliation requirements while the international federation continues its journey for GAISF recognition. In April 2021, Sport Ireland undertook to recommence the work of the working group, as I have mentioned, with all parties having agreed to take part in this process. Sport Ireland met the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association in May and a joint meeting with the Irish Martial Arts Committee is scheduled for June. It is positive that this process is being re-established and it is hoped that will be a pathway forward.

The process of recognition is a detailed and rigorous one and that is the same for all sports and national governing bodies, NGBs. It involves specific criteria that have to be met. Each of the national governing bodies for sport has demonstrated its capacity to organise competitions in its respective codes and to implement policies for health and safety, safeguarding and other matters. Above all else, we must remain cognisant of the safety of all participants, as outlined by the coroner. Sport Ireland will continue to work constructively with the interested stakeholders on this issue and I encourage all sides to engage with Sport Ireland and the recommenced working group on this matter. It is to be hoped we will see progress on this in June when they meet again. I appreciate both Deputies raising this issue.

The Dáil adjourned at 12.02 a.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 May 2021.