Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Rail Network

The rail freight service from Ballina railway station to Dublin Port normally takes between five and seven freight trains per week, servicing some of the biggest industries in the west. It is a core part of our attractiveness as a location to invest in Ballina. It is served by a superb team at Ballina railway station. The Ballina freight depot is one of the busiest in the country. However, since Christmas there have been a number of disruptions to services and in recent weeks the service has stopped completely. A wonderful company called International Warehousing and Transport, IWT, has been running the service. It has shown huge ambition in terms of developing the service and it has further plans for it. The service has come to a halt because of difficulties at Dublin Port that relate to Brexit and the need for space and some other issues which have put a stop to trains going into Dublin Port.

It is ridiculous that Dublin Port, the biggest port in the country, is no longer open to rail freight. We passed the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 in this House last week, during which debate we heard much talk about lowering emissions. We are failing to lower emissions yet a freight service which catered for between five and seven freight trains per week and took freight off the road is stopped. There does not appear to be a huge amount of urgency in terms of resolving the issue.

I know that work is under way and that the Department of Transport is engaging. It is a very minor operational issue. Dublin Port is engaging with International Warehousing and Transport, IWT, and Irish Rail but urgency is needed.

I acknowledge the engagement of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, on this matter. I know she cannot be here this evening. I put it to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, that the Department of Transport needs to get serious about rail services in the west. It does not believe in them. It treats rail services as an item under "any other business". This service works and is profitable. It delivers in so many ways and yet there is no urgency in the Department to resolve the issue. It is typical of the Department's approach to rail transport in the west.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this debate this evening. I know this is an issue which is very close to Deputy Calleary's heart. He has argued the case for Mayo very well and very strongly at a number of forums. I was astounded to read an article in The Irish Times which stated that freight services through Dublin Port were to be discontinued. I had assumed that we would be going in the other direction in every sense. In fact, when the new Government was formed last year, I spoke to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, about this and expressed my assumption and wish that freight would be increasingly directed onto rail, even aside from this particular issue, of which I was not aware at the time. I got into politics partly through the railways in a sense. I set up a group in my village of Sallins for commuters seeking to improve the rail service there. I passionately believe in the railways for the movement of people, freight and goods. It is more comfortable, environmentally friendly and efficient. There are so many benefits with regard to the movement of both people and goods that they hardly need repeating.

At a time when we have a great many opportunities, when Brexit is favouring Irish ports with increased traffic, when more and more goods are coming through Ireland as a gateway to Europe and when we are seeing opportunities in all of our ports and a spike in traffic, it is staggering to see Dublin Port suddenly deciding that the right thing to do is to close down one arm of its service. I am aware that customs posts need to be there and that various checks need to be done. I believe 5 ha is now devoted to this in Dublin Port. It is a necessary evil but the answer to an increase in business is not to contract an operation. Surely, it is to expand and to invest in it. I might regret it but I could understand it if we were all here wringing our hands and lamenting that a railway was being taken up because of a lack of business or a lack of interest but, to add insult to injury, this is a successful commercial operation. As Deputy Calleary stated, Ballina is serviced by five to seven trains a day. Coca-Cola helps with the operation and other firms may be involved. This is a successful enterprise which is being taken away and stopped at the very moment it is needed most for environmental and other reasons. We made the mistake of lifting up railways in this country before. Let us learn something from history and not go down that road again.

Gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the position regarding rail freight into Dublin Port on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton.

The Minister and the Minister of State strongly believe in the potential of rail freight and think it can play a bigger role in freight transport generally on this island. Both have spoken specifically on the potential for rail freight in the west. This is why, as part of the strategic rail review, we have included a specific focus on the topic. The review will also examine how our key ports are connected to the rail network and whether improvements are needed.

The focus we are looking to bring to this issue replicate the focus at a European level, where there is a renewed push to examine rail freight corridors and their potential as part of the Green New Deal. Obviously, there are differences in terms of what that potential might be across different countries, including in Ireland, however, it is clear in my mind that we can, and should, look to increase the modal share of rail freight from an environmental perspective and with a view to reducing congestion on our roads.

Specifically on Dublin Port, the Ministers are aware of operational issues that have arisen in the port involving two private companies with regard to the facilitation of rail freight services there. This relates to capacity constraints that have occurred in a lo-lo terminal in the port that are impacting on the rail services. To give some background, Dublin Port is the largest and busiest port in the State serving the trading needs of Ireland and handling, on average, 70% of all vessels visits and over 50% of all tonnage handled by ports in Ireland. Since the end of the Brexit transition period last January, shipping services direct to the Continent from Ireland have increased from approximately 36 lo-lo and ro-ro sailings a week in the first quarter of 2020 to more than 60 sailings direct to the Continent now. The Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO, reports that, in recent months, ro-ro volumes on Republic of Ireland–EU direct services increased by 81% while lo-lo volumes increased by 11%.

In Dublin Port, the lo-lo freight terminals are leased, managed and operated by private stevedoring companies. The rail line or spur in Dublin Port currently goes into the area where one of the stevedoring companies provides services for loading containers on and off trains. Since January, with the increased level of sailings and number of containers being handled in the port, this has led to significant pressures on space to cater for the additional freight and the containers coming in by rail at the same time and location.

Dublin Port, with an 85% percent share of all ro-ro trade in Ireland, provided 14.6 ha or almost one fifth of its lands on the north side of the river to facilitate the State services required post Brexit including facilities relating to customs, agriculture, immigration and so on. At the same time, Dublin Port is undertaking its most ambitious development programme in over a century to future-proof the port by providing additional cargo handling capacity and infrastructure for larger vessels, which is essential to cater for a growing economy. In the six years prior to 2020, and the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a 36% growth in freight volumes at the port. As it undertakes this work, Dublin Port itself is experiencing pinch points with no spare space at present which can be provided for the container services. With the completion of the capital works at the port and the introduction of a range of measure to optimise operations, however, it is intended that further growth can be facilitated in the future, along with the growth in rail services at the port.

The Minister and Minister of State are aware that discussions are ongoing at present with the stakeholders involved, including the two private companies along with Irish Rail and Dublin Port, to explore options to resolve these issues. They strongly urge all parties involved to engage constructively in this dialogue to ensure the continuation of the rail services into the port now and into the future.

I know this is not the Minister of State's Department but his response is incredibly disappointing. He spoke about the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, wanting to bring a focus on connecting key ports to the rail network. Such a connection was in place in Ballina long before the Ministers came into Government. We have a service that works well and which has massive potential but it has been stalled for reasons that have nothing to do with the service itself but, rather, with Dublin Port and the constraints there. I accept that Brexit is a challenge and that there have been other challenges at the port in recent weeks but the Brexit referendum was held five years ago. There was time to put all of these things in place. Given the size of Dublin Port, surely space and priority should have been given to rail freight if it is a priority.

This is typical of the Department's view of rail transport. We are being subjected to another strategic rail review. A rail committee in the west today published a report by Dr. John Bradley, formerly of the ESRI, into the viability of the western rail corridor. This debunks entirely the taxpayer-funded EY report, paid for and commissioned by the Department. That a private, volunteer-led organisation could debunk a State report entirely says volumes about the lack of commitment in the Department of Transport with regard to rail freight and rail transport.

Like Deputy Calleary, I am struggling to follow the reply. It seems to tell us that the port is very busy and getting busier. We already know that. That is the whole point of this debate. Why can we not use this to put more freight onto the railways? Why are we discontinuing a vital service at the very time it is needed most and when the port is in expansionary mode? I have gone through the reply a couple of times to see if I missed something. The Minister of State is agreeing with us but not proposing any solutions. I do not blame him, he has just been dragged in to take this debate, but it really beggars belief. I see the evidence of this with my own eyes. We have enough trucks on the road already. I represent Kildare North, which effectively serves as an outer M50. Trucks come off the M4 in the north and run to the M7 in the south, without bothering to go through the M50 in Dublin. They criss-cross Clane, Sallins, Naas, Straffan and all of the little villages and rat runs along the way. It is bad for north Kildare, for Ireland and for the environment. At a time when we should be expanding rail freight, this makes absolutely no sense. If Dublin Port cannot handle it, perhaps Drogheda, Arklow or a new deepwater port need a go. If Dublin Port is not up to it, somewhere else should take over.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, the Department worked with the ports and shipping companies to ensure sufficient capacity and connectivity to facilitate the movement of goods in and out of Ireland. Significant Government investment has gone into the customs, agriculture and immigration inspection facilities necessary since 1 January 2021. There has been a remarkable response from the shipping sector in the context of a significant number of additional sailings direct to the Continent as a result of market demand. There has also been a sharp increase in the demand for lo-lo services.

It is important to point out that neither the Minister for Transport nor the Department is directly involved in decisions taken by the privately operated terminal at Dublin Port.

However, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, is very concerned that the question of the continuation of rail services into the port should arise at a time when the focus is on ensuring our transport modes are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. The Minister understands discussions are continuing to explore several options to address the situation. He encourages all parties to engage constructively to ensure the difficulties are resolved as a matter of urgency so that Irish Rail can maintain and develop its services to the port.

The ultimate aim is that rail freight continues to be facilitated at Dublin Port in line with Government policy and particularly having regard to the strategic review of rail freight that is under way. It is acknowledged that freight by rail can make a significant contribution to climate action initiatives and tackling road congestion. As I mentioned, the Department of Transport, in consultation with the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland and other relevant stakeholders, is undertaking a strategic review of the heavy rail network on the island of Ireland. The Department launched the procurement process in April and it is expected that work on the review itself will commence by the summer and take 12 months to complete. This will be one of the most significant reviews of the rail network on the island in many years and will provide a framework to develop a much-improved rail network in the years ahead.

An Garda Síochána

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this very important issue. I fully appreciate that Garda resources are a matter for the Garda Commissioner but people in east Meath are rightly very distressed and concerned. It is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. The Garda station was built 20 years ago to meet the needs of a population one quarter the size of the current population. The one thing all electoral areas in County Meath such as Trim, Kells, Ashbourne, Navan and Ratoath have in common is they all have a full-time, 24-7 Garda station and a Garda superintendent. East Meath, including Laytown and Bettystown, has a population of 34,000 and that will increase by approximately 10,000 in the coming years but it does not have those services and it needs them urgently.

The Garda Commissioner is aware of this issue and he is listening to us. He met local representatives at the joint policing committee on 6 March 2020, and he was aware of the boundary issue between Meath and Louth in terms of ensuring there could be hot pursuit of criminals from east Meath into Drogheda and vice versa, if needed. The problem is parents are very upset as children were assaulted there recently. A couple of Sundays ago, the Garda dog unit and the Garda mounted support unit were needed in the area to ensure peace would prevail and thugs and people out of their heads on drink and drugs would not be able to dominate social life over a very important weekend.

Residents who live in one part of estates in Drogheda such as Rosevale and Beaubec ring Ashbourne Garda station, 25 miles away, while those who live in the other part of the estates ring Drogheda Garda station. That is not good enough and it is not acceptable. The Minister for Justice is aware of the issue and I have discussed it with her and the Department, but it is up to the Garda Commissioner, who has listened to us in Drogheda before, to deal with it. He assigned additional gardaí to the area following the appalling murder of Keane Mulready-Woods. Let us have action now in east Meath. The people need it and demand it. Tania O'Neill, a mother from the area, is campaigning very strongly on the issue.

It is scandalous the electoral district with the second-largest population in County Meath does not have a full-time Garda station. That is indefensible. I cannot put it any more simply than to say Laytown and the wider east Meath area demands and needs a 24-7 Garda station. As all present are aware, three weeks ago, Jamie O'Neill, a young leaving certificate student from Bettystown, was viciously beaten in a savage and unprovoked attack on Bettystown beach. The policing district is managed out of Ashbourne rather than out of Drogheda Garda station, which is nearby. The call that was made to the Garda about the incident ended up in Kildare. This is madness.

There are 22 gardaí in Laytown, up only marginally on the number in 2016. When the station is closed, the area is managed by mobile dynamic patrols. Until the crash and the cutbacks of 2008, the station had its own superintendent. In fact, there were plans to build a brand new station in the Laytown area to service the rapidly expanding east Meath and south Drogheda area, but responsibility was then given to Ashbourne, 30 km away, to manage Laytown.

The population of the area has trebled since 1996. It is not the small rural picture-postcard hamlet it used to be, although it is still very beautiful and one of my favourite places. However, it has got bigger and the challenges have become more extreme, but the services have not been provided to respond to the population changes. It has suffered more than its fair share of poor planning decisions and poor public policymaking in the past 20 years. The people of the area are entitled to security, a full-time station and to have their demands met as taxpayers and citizens. If the Government does not agree with the emotional arguments in favour of providing a full-time station, it should just look at the figures and how rapidly the population of the area has expanded in the past three years and how it will expand again in the coming years in the context of the new draft Meath development plan.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice, I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. The Garda Commissioner is responsible by law for the management and administration of Garda business, including the distribution of members of the Garda throughout the State. The Minister for Justice has no role in these independent functions. The determination of the need for the development of a new Garda station in Meath or at any other location will be considered by the Commissioner in the context of the overall accommodation requirements arising from the ongoing expansion of the Garda workforce, the availability of capital funding, the implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, the Government’s implementation plan for the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, and the new Garda operating model which will inform the accommodation priorities of An Garda Síochána in the years 2022 to 2030.

The Office of Public Works, OPW, has responsibility for the provision and maintenance of Garda accommodation. Works in respect of Garda accommodation are progressed by the Garda authorities working in close co-operation with the OPW. Again, the Minister for Justice has no direct role in these matters. I am assured that Garda management keeps the distribution of all resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities to ensure their optimum use. In that regard, I note the crimes cited by the Deputies.

There has been a significant increase in Garda resources in Meath in recent years. As of the end of May 2021, a total of 322 Garda members, in addition to 43 Garda staff, were assigned to the Meath division. These figures represent increases of 16% and 65%, respectively, since December 2015. As regards Laytown Garda station in particular, an inspector was appointed to the station in January of this year, indicating the commitment of An Garda Síochána to the area. I am advised that local Garda management has taken steps to improve Garda coverage in the area. These steps include increased frequency of patrols in affected areas as well as regular support from the divisional operational support unit for the area. The Meath division is one of four divisions earmarked by the Commissioner for the introduction of the new Garda operating model in the next year. The new operating model is envisaged to deliver improvements to structures, processes, services and governance, and there will be an increase in the number of front-line gardaí.

As the Deputies will be aware, the Drogheda: Creating a Bridge to a Better Future report recently published by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and compiled by Mr. Vivian Geiran, a former director of the Probation Service, recommends that exploration of how to address the issue of the impact of the county boundaries of Louth and Meath and the corresponding delineation between Garda districts and divisions, with specific regard to the policing of the Laytown-Bettystown area of east Meath, be undertaken. An implementation plan for the report is due to be published by the Department of Justice shortly. I again thank the Deputies for raising this issue.

I welcome the final section of the reply of the Minister of State. The Geiran report was commissioned following the appalling and vile murders in the Drogheda area. Indeed, there were also murders in east Meath, including the execution of a person outside his front door. In addition there are people missing, believed murdered, in the same general area. It is a significant issue. I welcome that reference was made to the Geiran report. That means the Commissioner is aware of the action he must take. He has listened to us previously and I stress I have every confidence he will act on this issue, but he needs to act now because the Tania O'Neills of this world will not wait and let their sons or daughters be attacked and assaulted.

They want a proper and appropriate Garda service and they are entitled to it. Gardaí want to provide that service but they are not in place to do so. We need additional gardaí to be assigned to the area. The initiative introduced by Commissioner Drew Harris in Drogheda was very welcome. We need him to introduce a new initiative in east Meath.

I met today with local Garda management and with Tania O'Neill, the mother of James. She speaks for all local parents and citizens, who are deeply frustrated with the situation, notwithstanding the good efforts of local gardaí and Garda management. This is not just an emotional argument. All the evidence is there, including the Central Statistics Office data showing a huge increase of 70% in public order offences in the area between 2018 and 2019. There was an increase in the region of 15% in recorded crime for the station at Laytown between 2016 and 2019. We have seen far too many gang-related criminal problems in the area, with some residents complaining there is open drug dealing going on and people behaving with impunity. Only 7% of all Garda resources in the community are deployed to the east Meath area. Given the size of the agglomerated area made up of Laytown, Bettystown, Mornington and south Drogheda, we are entitled to expect more. We are entitled to expect a full-time Garda station for these citizens and taxpayers to help them feel more secure and support what is a great community that is set to develop further over the next few years.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice, I again thank both Deputies for raising this matter. It is vitally important and they have brought forward very serious crime issues in the area that we need to tackle. I assure them that community safety is a priority for the Government and An Garda Síochána, as evidenced by the Government's unprecedented Garda provision for 2021. In tandem with this year's record Garda budget, the Department's justice plan for 2021 includes a range of commitments focused on actively supporting communities to enhance the safety of all residents. These include the establishment of a special expert forum on antisocial behaviour, which has already helped to inform a new scheme to tackle the misuse of scramblers and quad bikes. We also had the launch in April of the new youth justice strategy for 2021 to 2027, which has a strong focus on diverting young people away from offending and building supports to provide prevention and early intervention in young people's lives. Antisocial behaviour will also be considered by the local community safety partnerships that are to be set up by every local authority under the Department's new community safety policy. Three pilot partnerships are currently being established, in Dublin's north inner city, Longford and Waterford, and will run for the next two years, ahead of a nationwide roll-out. That is to be welcomed.

I assure the Deputies that the Minister for Justice continues to meet with the Garda Commissioner on an ongoing basis in regard to all Garda enforcement matters. I encourage members of the public to report any incidents of assault or antisocial behaviour directly to An Garda Síochána.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Ós rud é nach bhfuil mórán ama againn, caithfimid bheith sciobtha. Tháinig sé aniar aduaidh orm nuair a chuala mé scéal ar an Déardaoin go raibh fadhb i nGaillimh maidir le bheith ag freastal alcóil taobh amuigh de na pubanna agus na bialanna. Labhair mé leis an Aire an oíche sin agus - ceart go leor - d'eisigh sí ráiteas a thagair don tuiscint a bhí ag an Roinn. It is interesting to read the Garda statement, which specifies:

Licences to sell alcohol are issued by the District Court. The application for a licence to sell alcohol is accompanied by the lodgment of inter alia a site plan highlighting the specific area to which the licence will apply. The licensee is licensed to sell intoxicating liquor to a person to consume the alcohol within that highlighted area only, any other sales are on a takeaway basis only.

In other words, if something is not provided for on the licence, it is illegal.

We cannot go ahead without absolute clarity in the law. My question to the Minister of State is whether we are going to get either primary legislation or a new statutory instrument, whichever is needed and would suffice, to get rid of any doubt in the law. It is not fair to ask An Garda Síochána to show discretion that is contrary to the law.

What is happening at the moment is very much amateur hour stuff from the Government. The Garda issued a statement and then we had the Minister for Justice tweeting about it. The information she gave was not accurate and needs to be corrected. The message was very clear from the Government that we will have an outdoor summer. Restaurateurs and pub owners knew what that meant. We all thought we knew what it meant. To be clear about it, I asked An Tánaiste on 13 May, nearly six weeks ago, whether a plan would be put in place that would ensure everyone is on board, knows the rules and knows what he or she is supposed to be doing. He agreed that a plan would be necessary but nothing was done. The situation is absolutely shambolic. It is as though the Government does not realise that hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on its getting this right.

I welcome the opportunity, however short, to raise this matter with the Minister of State. I have a slightly different view on it from my colleagues. First, I think the Garda has done us a favour in highlighting the difficulties its members are facing in being asked to use their discretion. That is extremely difficult to do. In fact, we know from history and various tribunals that it is just not possible.

This problem has arisen as a consequence of the message given by the Government that we are to have an outdoor summer. Unfortunately, that simply means more consumption of alcohol and the situation is not helped by a broader interpretation of what an outdoor summer means. In Galway, we have clear by-laws that say it is not permitted to drink on the streets. Those by-laws were not put in place overnight. They happened as a result of continuous pressure from various people because public drinking was out of control. Rather than recognising that position and having a balanced approach to the reopening of pubs, which I fully agree with, the Government focused on an outdoor drinking situation, which is totally wrong. We should have opened all pubs, albeit with restricted capacity, to reduce the pressure. I am asking not just for clarity in this matter but for a healthier message from the Government as to what an outdoor summer means, while still facilitating businesses in Galway and elsewhere.

I thank Deputies Ó Cuív, O'Reilly and Connolly for raising this important issue and giving me an opportunity to address it on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. Following public health guidance, Government policy is to have a gradual reopening of the hospitality sector, beginning with outdoor hospitality, before a decision is taken on resuming indoor service in a few weeks. Many of our bars and restaurants have now reopened with outdoor service, which is giving people a welcome opportunity to meet safely with friends and family again.

As An Garda Síochána has made clear, the overwhelming majority of licensed premises have behaved responsibly. Those that continue to behave responsibly in controlling their premises should have nothing to worry about. Gardaí all across the country use their discretion every day to police as the circumstances require, as they have done throughout the pandemic, and they work closely with restaurants and pubs to ensure the safety of the public. An Garda Síochána will continue to adopt a graduated approach to the public health guidelines. Members of the force will engage with the public and encourage and educate in respect of the public health guidelines, as they have done throughout the pandemic. This often requires a delicate balance and there are different legal situations in different parts of the country, depending on whether there are local authority by-laws in place.

A small minority of pubs have been serving alcohol to customers seated outside agreed areas. Clearly, that will be the focus of any Garda action in the first instance. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has discussed this matter with Garda Commissioner Harris a number of times and did so again yesterday morning. The Commissioner has since issued a communication to regional assistant commissioners indicating that gardaí should use discretion while continuing to respond to public complaints about public order issues, parking, noise etc. The Commissioner has reassured the Minister that discretion will continue to be applied by gardaí in their engagement with licensed premises.

Both the Commissioner and the Minister are satisfied that the Irish people can be facilitated to enjoy a safe outdoor summer while gardaí continue their difficult work of keeping people safe. The Attorney General and the Minister have also spoken on this matter and their officials will work closely, together with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, to examine the matter in full. This is a complex area of law, as the Deputies will appreciate, but the Minister has committed to taking legislative action, if necessary.

In regard to specific points raised by Deputy O'Reilly, I do not agree with the contention that the Government's approach is shambolic.

The Government has managed and put in place a level of adequate supports to help facilitate a safe and socially distanced outdoor summer. The messaging, from a whole-of-government approach, is getting out.

Deputy Connolly raised a significant and important point about spreading the impact across towns and cities. It is certainly to be considered. However, the Government has made good strides in working with all partners, including local authorities, local communities, vintners, hoteliers and the services sector, to put in place a good set of proposals and supports to ensure that we can have a safe and enjoyable summer in 2021.

While I thank the Minister of State for his response, the matter gets more confusing every time somebody speaks on it. He stated, "This is often a delicate balance and there are different legal situations in different parts of the country depending on whether there are local authority by-laws in place." That is true, but is it the problem in this case? If it is, the local authority in Galway should be told to sort out the problem. However, towards the end of his response, the Minister of State made it clear that this may not be the case, and it might be a matter of primary law.

When gardaí visited a licensed premises in Galway, they must have known under what law they were doing so. It cannot be a great complex problem, because gardaí cannot approach anybody without having authority based in law. Will the Government introduce amending legislation to rectify the issue or is it saying unequivocally, without doubt, that it is a matter for the local authorities and their by-laws?

When I said the position was a shambles, this is what I was talking about. The Minister of State indicated that the Minister of Justice had "committed to taking legislative action, if necessary". In the past hour and a half, the Irish Independent has reported that "Justice Minister Heather Humphreys will bring legislative changes on pubs and restaurants selling alcohol in their outdoor seating areas" in the coming days. That is the message that people who are fighting really hard to save their businesses and workers who want their jobs to survive this, are getting. They are getting mixed messages. They deserve some clarity, as do members of An Garda Síochána who are being asked to police this. They are not being given sufficient guidance by the Government on the issue.

As I stated, I raised this issue with the Tánaiste six weeks ago. The Government has had a long time to plan for it. We should not be having the conversation at this late stage. In the intervening time, will the Government issue guidance and provide some sort of clarity for those people who are going to be expected to deal with the mess the Government has created?

I think the Minister of State is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening here. We are sending out a message that businesses can take over public spaces and serve alcohol, which breaches by-laws that prevent the consumption of alcohol in such spaces. That is one message that is being sent out. The Government is placing the Garda in an impossible position.

Galway City Council passed the Barcelona Declaration almost 20 years ago, guaranteeing universal access to all of the city's residents to the streets of Galway for services, regardless of ability and age. In addition to giving consideration to the needs of businesses, a balancing of rights is required here, and that has not been considered. We are focusing on law. To me, the law is quite clear. You get a licence to serve drink on a premises and the drink can be taken and consumed outside, unless there are by-laws in place. Such by-laws are in place in Galway.

The Government message to the public to enjoy an outdoor summer must be healthier and cannot just be about the consumption of alcohol and taking over public spaces. It must be much fairer, broader and more inclusive than that. That is the problem.

As I said, An Garda Síochána has made clear that the overwhelming majority of owners of licensed premises have behaved responsibly and those who continue to behave responsibly in controlling their premises should have nothing to worry about. A tiny minority of pubs have been serving alcohol to those seated outside agreed areas, and clearly that will be the focus of any Garda action in the first instance.

Many cities have by-laws in place. Local authorities have facilitated pubs with permissions for outdoor seating and grants have been made available to many businesses. We want this to work but gardaí need to be able to control matters as needed and prevent them from getting out of hand. Gardaí across the country use their discretion every day to police as the circumstances require, as they have done throughout the pandemic, and work closely with restaurants and pubs to ensure the safety of the public. I trust that Garda members will act in accordance with the Garda Commissioner's instruction and will continue to adopt a graduated approach to the public health guidelines, in the interests of public safety and order. However, the Government is clear that if we need to take further action, we will do so. The Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, is discussing what further measures may be needed with the Attorney General and Government colleagues.

In response to Deputy Connolly's point about the messaging on the outdoor summer, it is broad and it is about the enjoyment of outdoor spaces and nature. We are asking for people to enjoy the outdoor summer responsibly. Those messages have begun to be sent out in media campaigns this week. The messaging is much broader and is about much more than just the consumption of alcohol in our towns and cities. It is about enjoying what the country has to offer on a broader scale. We are cognisant of that messaging and we have begun to get that message out this week.

Water Services

The transfer of responsibility for water from the local authorities to Irish Water has created many problems. As a public representative, I find the process of reporting issues cumbersome and frustrating. I can imagine, therefore, that it would try the patience of an ordinary citizen. When a problem is reported to Irish Water it utilises the water services staff and equipment of Dublin City Council and other councils. If I were to go directly to the council to report an issue, I would be told to contact Irish Water first, which is a ridiculous situation.

While there is a dedicated elected representative support email address, in my experience the system does not necessarily address the issues any quicker. My constituency colleagues and I have had to pursue issues to the point of exasperation, sending email after email to the Irish Water representative's address to try to get the problems we have raised resolved. I have found that many of the responses I receive show a lack of understanding of the problem raised and are often inaccurate. This method of raising issues with Irish Water is nothing more than a sop to public representatives. Lack of effective communication and an inability to liaise directly with senior management raise concerns in respect of both transparency and accountability.

Elderly residents, families with small children and people with disabilities or long-term illnesses and so on are severely affected by any disruption to their water supply. It is essential, therefore, that the customer service side of Irish Water is effective and public representatives have access to senior management.

I am also concerned that works carried out by Irish Water have caused secondary problems, such as airlocks and low water pressure. On McKee Avenue in Finglas last Saturday, after Irish Water had completed works in the area, residents, including a number of elderly people, were left without a water supply all weekend and all day Monday up until this morning. It appears that no advance notice was given of the works taking place. In St. Canice's Court in Finglas, residents were also left with disrupted water supply following works carried out by Irish Water. The issues around water pressure are still ongoing. When these problems are raised with Irish Water, I find that it effectively abdicates responsibility and in many cases puts the onus on the homeowner affected to rectify the problem.

One such example relates to a case in which the roots of a tree have penetrated a sewage pipe, causing a blockage. The affected pipe is located outside the boundaries of a private residence on Collins Avenue Extension. However, Irish Water is of the view that it is the responsibility of the homeowner to fix the problem. It is not an isolated case. In this and other cases, it is clear that Irish Water is not undertaking proper investigations that would lead it to a different conclusion as to who has responsibility for fixing such problems.

Irish Water also needs to look at the policy of patching up of work areas after initial completion. In many instances, the patching up of roads and pathways has left them in a terrible condition for months on end before they are properly reinstated. I am concerned about the proposal to transfer responsibility for Dublin City Council's drainage section to Irish Water in July. It is a serious worry in light of Irish Water's failures to date. It needs to get its house in order before it should even consider taking on this responsibility.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and allowing me the opportunity to outline the position in respect of Irish Water’s responsibility on this matter. The Water Services Acts 2007 to 2017 set out the arrangements in place for the delivery of water and waste water services by Irish Water, and for the scrutiny and oversight provisions that apply in respect of these arrangements. Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels, including with respect to water supply interruptions and communication with customers and the maintenance of water and waste water infrastructure. Irish Water is independent in the exercise of its statutory functions and in regard to day-to-day operational matters.

In assuming responsibility for water services from local authorities, Irish Water has entered into service level agreements, SLAs, with each local authority for the provision of water services. Staff members working under these arrangements remain local authority employees while continuing to perform key water services functions with local authorities acting as agents of Irish Water.

As part of the operational model established by the Oireachtas it is important to note that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, in its role as economic regulator of Irish Water, has an important role in regulating and protecting the interests of Irish Water customers. One of the key ways the CRU protects customers is through the Irish Water customer handbooks, which set out how Irish Water must deal with its domestic and non-domestic customers. In the case of planned interruptions for operational reasons or for other service incidents, the handbooks detail how Irish Water must communicate with its customers. These handbooks are available on the CRU website.

Planned supply interruptions can occur for maintenance reasons or in regard to planned works undertaken by local authority staff or third party contractors on behalf of Irish Water. Unplanned interruptions can often be the result of a fault in the network, or related to a severe weather event, and are usually responded to in the first instance by the relevant local authority under the service level agreement with Irish Water.

Irish Water assures me that it makes every effort to deliver on its responsibilities and keeping such interruptions to a minimum to the extent possible, thus minimising the impact on its customers.

I assure Deputy Ellis that all Oireachtas Members and councillors use the public representatives’ service. I find it good but I take on board the points made in terms of it being a different way. It took a bit of getting used to from when we would make representations directly to a local authority. Generally, I find that any representations I make to Irish Water in regard to water or waste water infrastructure or emergency situations are good but there is always room for improvement in this regard.

I believe the original purpose of changing over to Irish Water and moving all services from local authorities was to privatise it. The people went out on the streets and stopped that. It now seems we are going to keep Irish Water in public ownership, which is right. However, it was already in public ownership with the local authorities. That was the best place for it to be.

That said, Irish Water is in place and I am outlining the problems we face as public representatives when dealing with Irish Water, as well as the problems residents encounter. In some cases, Irish Water fixed a fault, only for other houses to be knocked off the system through air locks and other faults. We must have a mechanism to deal with that. We cannot just turn around and say to people it is their responsibility. Many of these are senior citizens and pensioners, left with a large bill to sort out a problem that they never had before. It is just not good enough. We need to have better mechanisms. The handbook needs to be revisited with some of these issues. I have encountered it on a number of occasions. On a lot of occasions Irish Water has reacted reasonably well. However, there are many occasions where there has not been a proper reaction with people angry over it.

The residents to whom I spoke only this morning were fuming over what happened. They were not even given warnings. No one even sent a letter around from door to door, which to me would be the most sensible thing to do, especially for those with sick people at home. That would give them the opportunity to store water and be ready for a cut-off.

Deputy Ellis raised important points, particularly about sending out notifications and effective communication. Those points are important for Irish Water to take on board.

The Water Services Acts place specific responsibilities on the Minister and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, including responsibility for matters relevant to water policy, funding and in the making of regulations. The Water Services Acts also put in place a variety of legislative and regulatory controls to ensure governance, oversight and accountability regarding water services.

Irish Water is subject to significant regulation and oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, relating to environmental compliance and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, relating to economic regulation, including customer service. The Oireachtas also established the Water Advisory Body to report to the Oireachtas on Irish Water’s performance.

For example, regarding the major boil water notice arising from problems at the Leixlip water treatment plant in 2019, the CRU carried out an audit of the Irish Water response to check compliance with the standards laid down in the customer service handbooks. This audit is also available on the CRU website.

As I have outlined, Irish Water assures my Department that it makes every effort to deliver on its responsibilities, to keep service interruptions to the minimum extent possible, as well as to comply with its obligations under the customer service handbooks when communicating with customers.

I note the points made by Deputy Ellis. As I said, we can always improve on the communication and on the level of service provided to the public.

On the point raised about McKee Avenue, Finglas, I understand that the burst water main has now been repaired. It was probably the initial query brought forward by Deputy Ellis. I thank him for bringing this issue forward this evening.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.08 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 23 June 2021.