Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Departmental Functions

The Department of Health has suspended the activities of the north inner city drug and alcohol task force and is putting in place its own process to appoint a chairperson and broaden its membership. The Department of Health is basing this decision on an accusation of governance shortcomings in the north inner city drug and alcohol task force. I have been talking to the task force members and the task force absolutely and totally rejects this accusation. It views the actions of the Department as completely unjustified and is intent on defending the honesty, integrity and professionalism of the chairperson, directors, members and staff of the task force.

In the 25 years since the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force was established, there have been no governance shortcomings raised with the task force and the Department has made this allegation without presenting a shred of evidence. The only governance shortcoming the Department of Health refers to is a recent task force process for the appointment of a new chairperson. Contrary to what the Department is saying, the task force has complied with all the requirements set out in the drugs and alcohol task force handbook.

The task force states without reservation that the process put in place for the appointment of the chair has been collectively agreed and implemented with complete transparency by all the task force members across community, voluntary and statutory sectors. The outgoing chair has carried out his duty in this matter with honesty and integrity and through consensus. The person selected by the task force as the next chair fully complies with the requirements as outlined in the handbook, including not being connected to any of the projects funded by the task force.

Despite all of this, the Department has intervened in a process to block the task force from going ahead with the appointment of a new chair.

The Department representative intervened first as a member of the north inner city programme implementation board, then changed to an intervention directly on behalf of the Department looking for a three-person interview panel to be put in place with a Department representative, a HSE representative and a drugs and alcohol task force representative. It is unprecedented in 25 years of the drugs and alcohol task force for the Department of Health or any parent Department to intervene in this way in the selection of a chair. The task force did not agree with this proposal as it is not in compliance with the handbook or company law. The action of the Department is suspending the drugs and alcohol task force for governance shortcomings has been taken in the complete absence of any procedures based on natural justice or a right to reply. It has tainted the personal and professional reputations of the directors, members and staff of the task force by presenting them as unfit and untrustworthy to carry out the work of the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force. The Department is also proposing to remove every shred of independence from the task force by taking over the appointment of the chair and members.

I am calling on the Department to withdraw its decision to suspend the task force, reinstate it immediately and set up a forum for natural justice. If the Department feels there is a problem, its representatives should talk it out with the task force members in an open and transparent way. I appeal to the Minister of State to do that. This has been the tradition of the task forces since they were set up 25 years ago to respond to the drug issues facing communities across the country. They should be respected for that.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the engagement with the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force on the arrangements for the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson. As Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I recognise and value the important role that drug and alcohol task forces play in co-ordinating drug and alcohol projects and services assisting individuals and families to address addiction issues in the community. The Department of Health has oversight of the task forces and their annual allocation of over €29 million. A handbook on the governance and operation of task forces has been in place since 2011. Task forces are expected to conduct their affairs in accordance with the handbook.

The Department of Health provides an annual allocation of €2.2 million for drug and alcohol services under the auspices of the north inner city drug and alcohol task force. The Department has worked closely with the task force in recent years, as part of the Government's north-east inner city, NEIC, initiative. It has supported the task force to undertake a community needs analysis on drug and alcohol use and jointly hosted a seminar to present the findings in the offices of the Department of Health. Considerable additional resources have been provided to enhance drug and alcohol services in the area, both from the NEIC initiative and the Department's budget.

As I understand it, at the start of 2021, the outgoing chairperson of the task force approached the Department to discuss the appointment of a new independent chairperson. As stated in the task force handbook, the chairperson's independence must clearly be established and evident in the manner in which the business of the task force is conducted. In particular, there should be complete transparency in arrangements put in place for the selection process and appointment of the chairperson. The Department and the outgoing chairperson agreed a process whereby there would be a search for suitable candidates for the post, with third-party assistance, to identify a shortlist for interview. I understand that the agreed process for selecting and appointing an independent chairperson was not followed. The Department wrote to the task force to highlight its concerns in April, to request that the successor chairperson was not appointed, and to meet with the task force at the earliest opportunity. There is now an impasse in the appointment of a chairperson of the task force. Unfortunately, the failure of the leadership of the task force to engage with the Department on this matter has left no alternative than to put in place a process to appoint an independent chairperson and to broaden the membership of the task force to include all stakeholders, including public representatives.

I emphasise that community projects and services under the auspices of the task force will continue and there will be no disruption in services. The employment of the two task force staff members will also continue. I have advised that the meetings and other business activities of the task force should be suspended on a temporary basis during this process. When the task force is reconstituted and an independent chairperson appointed, the task force will resume the role and responsibilities for co-ordinating drug and alcohol services in the north inner city.

The Deputy has raised an important issue. She wants consultation and I look forward to that. We will be meeting with public representatives and stakeholders tomorrow. I welcome the Deputy's engagement. I hope that, working with all the stakeholders, we can sort out this impasse. We need a meeting with all the stakeholders as soon as possible and I look forward to it.

The Minister of State said he has asked Department officials to meet community representatives to explain the governance issues that the Department is alleging have arisen in the task force and also to explain the Department's proposal to put in place a transparent process for the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson. The Minister of State's statement fails to respond to the point that the Department should withdraw the suspension. It is difficult for the task force to understand how the Department could consider it acceptable to invite only some of the members of the task force to a meeting when the suspension has been applied to the full task force. Members of the task force consider that disrespectful to their colleagues and until the suspension is lifted, they do not consider it appropriate for them to meet the officials.

When considering an action as serious and unprecedented as suspension, an action that has never been taken by any Minister in 25 years across the 24 task forces, it is an absolute requirement of good governance and proper procedure to put the alleged shortcomings to the members of the task force in advance of such a decision so that there is a right to reply in line with the principles of natural justice. The very fact that community representatives are now being asked to meet Department officials after the task force has been publicly suspended shows that no attempt has been made by the Department to raise the governance shortcomings with the task force in advance of its suspension.

The Minister of State stated that the existing members of the task force will be consulted about the process of selection to appoint an independent chair and that the approval of that appointment will be a decision for the collective membership of the task force. That completely ignores the fact that the decision on the appointment of the new chair has already been taken by the collective membership of the task force in accordance with the drugs and alcohol task force handbook guidelines. I thank the Minister of State for his stated intention to meet public representatives but the key here is to talk to the task force. I welcome the meeting to which the Minister of State has referred. I will attend and look forward to it. However, the main thing is for the Department and the Minister of State to talk directly to the members of the task force about the issues.

There are a few points from the debate and media statements that I want to clarify. No accusations were made against any individual associated with the task force. I have not raised any issues about the honesty and integrity of the individuals involved, nor suggested in any way that they are unfit or untrustworthy.

The Deputy suggested that we talk to the full task force and I will take that on board because it is helpful. I hope we can come to some agreement and in the next few days will be able to discuss the matter.

The front-line drug and alcohol services under the task force umbrella continue to be funded and provided. The staff members directly employed by the task force will continue to do their work. Departmental officials have been and are available to meet with members of the task force to explain the governance issues that have arisen and to outline the Department's proposal to put in place a transparent process for the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson for the organisation. Members of the task force will be consulted about the process to select and appoint an independent chairperson. They will also confirm the appointment of the independent chairperson following the transparent selection process.

I ask for the co-operation of all stakeholders in putting in place good governance procedures. It is important that task forces are open and transparent in how they appoint their officers and do their business. Good governance will build confidence in the task force to continue its important work in co-ordinating drug and alcohol services in the north inner city and in contributing to make this area a better place to live for young people, families and the whole community.

I thank the Deputy for her helpful observations and look forward to meeting with all the stakeholder in the coming days.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I am disappointed the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is not here today because my questions relate specifically to an interview he gave on Newstalk radio on 21 June with Kieran Cuddihy in which he stated very firmly and categorically that by the end of that day, there would be uniformity in how Covid restrictions were applied across the maternity hospitals. In particular, he said women would be able to have their partners with them during full labour, including from being induced right the way through. He was very clear when he said "full labour".

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Women are still being met with having to be 3 cm or 4 cm dilated before their partners are allowed in. There may be some misunderstanding as to what that actually means. Anyone who has had a baby certainly knows what those internal exams mean for them. In order for a woman to have her partner with her, she needs to undergo an internal vaginal exam to ascertain exactly what dilation she is at. She must, therefore, prove she is 3 cm or 4 cm dilated before she can have her partner in. Many women do not want to have that exam. It is uncomfortable. If a woman has been abused, she certainly would not want that exam to happen and it is her right not to have that exam. At the moment, however, the only way she can have support with her is for that exam to happen and that is just not right.

The Minister also said in the interview that within a number of weeks - so by now - emergency cases would also be catered for. That would mean women would not be going through miscarriages alone. That has not happened. Women are going through caesarean sections and do not have the support of their partners after the procedure. IVF treatment is happening where women cannot have their support partners with them. I seek some clarity on the comments made by the Minister and on exactly what is happening across maternity hospitals.

I support the calls made by Deputy Whitmore. She is right about that interview given by the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, on 21 June on Newstalk. What he did was raise expectations. In fact, those of us in opposition commended and supported the stance he took. It was exactly what campaigners had been calling for, which is that all restrictions would be lifted for the full labour and not what was called active labour, and all the caveats that had previously been attached. Yet, it has not happened. There is no uniformity.

Questions are rightly being asked about who is in charge. We are being told by the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, that there is no clinical medical reason as to why these restrictions should remain in place. We were told by others in the HSE, including the national clinical director, that, again, there is no reason these restrictions should be in place. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, said he supports an easing of restrictions. He went on national radio and said the restrictions will, by and large, be gone and the emergency situations would be dealt with in a couple of weeks. Yet, none of that has been done. It is the same for prenatal and postnatal appointments. Restrictions are in place in all those areas. Women cannot understand why these restrictions are still in place when everything else is opening up.

The partners of expectant mothers are not visitors. They cannot be seen in the same category as visitors; they are partners. When women go through a pregnancy, they deserve to have their partners with them for all scans and for the full birth. While there may have been some justification for these restrictions in the past, there is no justification now. The Minister, therefore, needs to get his act together, stamp his authority, take charge and deal with this once and for all.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this topic on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, on the floor of the House today. I begin by again assuring the House and the Deputies present that I completely understand the difficulties posed by the restrictions in our maternity services for expectant mums, partners and families over the course of this pandemic.

As we are all acutely aware, however, Covid-19 has been and still is prevalent throughout our communities. As a result, it has been necessary to introduce measures right across the health system to curtail the virus. Regrettably, restrictions implemented in our maternity hospitals have impacted access for partners, and I fully appreciate the anxiety and concern that has caused.

It is important, however, we bear in mind that restrictions were put in place to protect the women, babies and staff in our maternity hospitals. It is worth remembering also that some of the most vulnerable members of our society are cared for in our maternity hospitals, including fragile infants at the very extremes of prematurity and the sickest of newborns with very complex needs.

We are now seeing some of those restrictions being relaxed, and national guidance was issued to maternity services covering attendance while a woman is in the labour ward, daily visits by partners, 20-week anomaly scans and visits by parents to the neonatal intensive care unit. This guidance also covered visits where there might be communication that is particularly significant.

The HSE has advised that all 19 maternity hospitals are fully complying with this guidance since 21 June. In addition, building on the guidance around planned attendances, the HSE has advised that updated guidance was issued to maternity services on 24 June. This relates to unplanned attendances such as emergency presentations, attendance at early pregnancy assessment units and visits by women considered to have higher-risk pregnancies.

With regard to this updated guidance, the HSE has advised it engaged last week with the six hospital groups to seek confirmation of compliance across the 19 maternity services. The response received this week indicates 18 of the 19 units are fully compliant with partners being allowed at early assessment units, 12 of the 19 are fully compliant with high-risk pregnancy visits and 15 of the 19 are fully compliant with emergency presentation visits. The HSE has advised it is engaging with the individual services to set out a plan to provide access for partners in line with the guidance. My Department has asked for a detailed report on the matter to include timelines for its implementation.

I again assure the House that we are working hard to do everything we can to ensure the restrictions are reversed as quickly as possible, insofar as it is safe to do so. The advice, however, remains that the potential for Covid-19 to spread in maternity services is very real. I am, however, glad of the progress we are making and I hope this progress can continue.

The Minister of State's response contradicts what the CMO, the HSE and the Minister himself said that there were no health and safety reasons these restrictions should be in place. I know the Minister said he understands what women are going through but that these rules are in place to protect women. We need to stop treating women like children.

In a week where we are debating the vaccine certificate, it is beyond belief that when a woman is vaccinated, and when her partner is vaccinated, she would still have go through an emergency or a miscarriage on her own. That is unacceptable. The House is rising for the summer and I have a real fear this will not be sorted for women over the coming weeks or months and they will be left behind again. For some reason, when comes to women's healthcare, women are always left behind and must fight for every last piece of rights. We are last in the queue all the time. We are behind hairdressers, pubs and restaurants. It is not acceptable that women have to face miscarriages alone. All the women and their partners I have heard from over the past couple of weeks and months are all scared and terrified. Many of them have already gone through this process and cannot go through it again. I ask, therefore, that the Minister of State makes sure this is resolved before the recess.

The Minister of State's speech was peppered with words like "reports" and "timelines". It was full of caveats and, to be quite frank and straight, excuses, and there are no excuses.

As the previous speaker said, we have been told time and again that the same public health experts, whom the Government is saying we must hang our coats on for with everything else, are wrong when it comes to maternity restrictions. It is not good enough. The Minister and the Government need to get their act together. The Government has not gotten anything right in recent times. We have emergency legislation we will debate tomorrow, which it has made a complete mess of. We have the national maternity hospital, which it is making a complete mess of. Time and again we have come in here in good faith, trying to get clarity and trying to get progress for women and their partners. While the Government says it is listening, it is hearing and that it cares, it is not solving the problem. The Government should do its job. The Minister must do his job, get off his backside and sort this out once and for all and not have us having to come back in September with this still being a problem.

I thank the Deputies. Again they have articulated and acknowledged the difficulties and the anxieties the restrictions in our maternity services have placed on women and their partners during the pandemic. Such a deviation from normal practices in our maternity hospitals is of course a cause for concern and something that is deeply regrettable. However, as I noted, these measures were necessary to protect mums, babies and partners, as well as those whose job it is to care for them. I have also mentioned the potential for Covid-19 to spread in our maternity services is still very real and the challenge of protecting everyone, whether they are receiving or providing care, remains. Thankfully, we are making progress and I welcome the efforts made to strike a balance between those important goals. Our maternity services are working hard to ensure as much access can be provided to partners as possible, while keeping everyone safe. The House will agree staff in these services have performed admirably in what have been difficult and unprecedented circumstances. I look forward to when restrictions can be relaxed further and to when mums, partners and their families can once again experience these joyous moments without worry or concern. Hopefully, in the next few weeks we will be in a better place but I will bring the Deputies' concerns to the Minister. Their concerns are valid. They articulated them well and I hope in a few weeks, women will not have to go through this difficult situation.

Driver Test

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this issue and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for being here this evening. The latest figure I have is that there are 119,253 people waiting for a driver theory test. There are nearly another 100,000 people waiting for the actual old-style driver test but tonight I am going to focus on the theory test. For the past number of weeks my office, as I assume the office of every Deputy has been, has been inundated with complaints from people who cannot get detail, who have had test cancelled four, five, six, and on one occasion, seven times, who cannot get jobs because they cannot get on the driver licence waiting list and who cannot get information from either Prometric or the Road Safety Agency, RSA, about what is going on. Surely as a Government committed to a digital strategy we can put this online for a much greater number of people than we are currently doing. Third-level colleges and fourth-level institutions are doing exams online with appropriate supervision. We can do driver theory tests online with appropriate supervision. I have also had many complaints from people who are getting emails on the morning of the test, or even when they are outside the centre, informing them their test is cancelled. The backlog due to Covid is one thing, but the manner in which people, and young drivers in particular, are being treated is unacceptable. The House is going into recess and we have no other way of knowing how this is going to be dealt with. I insist we have a response this evening.

I have been engaging with driving instructors across Lucan, Clondalkin, Palmerstown, Newcastle, Saggart and Rathcoole since the beginning of the year. I have been using their feedback to help shape my requests to the Department of Transport. I thank the Minister of State for taking action on some of the suggestions I have made on their behalf, in particular the move to online driver theory tests. Young people have suffered greatly during this pandemic. They have had to sacrifice an awful lot for the common good and getting on the road and learning to drive is a rite of passage for young people, which has been almost completely taken away from them since the beginning of this pandemic. The backlog of tests created by the pandemic has made getting on the road an even more difficult task than usual. I have been contacted by so many frustrated young people who have had their theory tests cancelled and rescheduled more times than they can count this past year. There are young people who purchased their 12 essential driver theory lessons from a driving instructor more than 15 months ago and who have not been able to sit behind the wheel for their first lesson yet. The Minister of State can imagine how disappointing this is for these young people who see driving as the first big step towards independence. What assurance can she give them and our driving instructors that the backlogs will be cleared?

I concur with my colleagues regarding young drivers, in the main, who are looking for driver theory tests. I speak tonight on behalf of one young gentleman, Mr. Liam Mooney from Malin Head. He is a 19-year-old man who applied for his driver theory test in September 2020. It has been cancelled five times. He is a young man with a disability. Once he gets the driver theory test he is going to have to wait for the test itself and then apply for a primary medical certificate and go through further assessment and delay. On behalf of young people with disabilities who have been through the mill with the delays, the bureaucracy and who have had their expectations knocked so many times, I ask the Minister of State to ask the officials to look not just at this individual case but at those of all young people with disabilities to see how we can try to enable them to get through this process. It is an elongated process and an exhausting one for them, so I am asking for a special intervention here in respect of young Liam Mooney from Malin Head, County Donegal.

I thank all the Deputies for raising this important matter. Delivery of the driving test and the driver theory test, DTT, service are the statutory responsibility of the RSA and I have no power to intervene in individual cases.

The gradual reopening of in-person driver theory test centres commenced on 8 June. The SRA reopened test centres and introduced capacity to increase the number of tests from an average of 15,000 tests in normal pre-Covid times to 25,000 tests monthly to tackle the backlog and shorten waiting times. The test centres have extensive Covid-19 measures in place to protect both customers and staff and to ensure the safe delivery of the service. The Department is working to increase capacity to 50,000 tests per month over time, if public health guidance permits. The service provider has sourced an additional 40 temporary team members to support the expected increase in capacity to 50,000 in-person test appointments. A pilot online driver theory test has been running for truck and bus categories and has been extended to include car and motorbike tests. The new offering saw 4,000 theory tests available for all categories of vehicles during June. The RSA has increased this by a further 6,000, bringing the total to 10,000 online tests that will be conducted during July. Tests are on a first-come, first-served basis with the new online service becoming more widely available later in the year.

The current number of confirmed bookings on the system is 116,024 scheduled tests. During the five weeks up to 5 July, 37,303 theory tests were scheduled to take place, 28,945 tests were taken and, of those, 22,603 were passed. The number of people who failed to pass was 6,342. It is clear that the service is back up and running.

However, I am concerned at the number of applicants who do not show up for their test. The no-show figure is notable at 5,351. It is hugely disappointing that nearly 15% of candidates for the theory test are no-shows on the day, especially when there has been such high demand for the service.

This puts an unnecessary strain on the service and further complicates matters for the many people awaiting a test and who will ultimately be delayed as a result. I know the Road Safety Authority, RSA, is concerned about this too and I understand it is looking at communications and reminders in order to reduce this number.

Due to the suspension of driving testing services in the initial pandemic response, along with the health protocols required since the resumption of services, a significant backlog has developed. Driving tests for essential workers continue to be a priority for the driving testing service. However, in line with the gradual reopening of services, driving tests for all those who are eligible to take the test and have been waiting longest have recommenced in a limited fashion since the end of May. The further reopening of driving testing services will be the subject of discussions between the Department of Transport and the RSA in the coming weeks.

The RSA driver testers are undertaking driving tests in extremely difficult conditions in an enclosed space where physical distancing is very difficult. They are using vehicles provided by the test candidates, which are not controllable environments. An additional 40 temporary testers were recruited in the second quarter of the year and 18 of the new recruits have completed training and been live testing since the week commencing 7 June. There are 21 more who have successfully completed training and began live testing yesterday, 12 July. Sanction was recently received for a further 40 temporary testers.

I thank the Minister of State for the detail. When is it intended to get to 50,000 tests per month? I know the RSA has statutory responsibility for this but will the Minister of State address the service matters and the lack of service with the authority? Is there any way we can put up numbers regularly on the RSA website of how many people are awaiting tests and how many are being done? The Minister of State indicates there were 28,945 tests done in June and the start of July and that number should be more widely available instead of having to be sought in the Chamber. We will not be able to seek it here from next week but such numbers could start building confidence that the backlog is being addressed.

Are there any plans to increase the number of tests available for people for reasons of employment or other urgent reasons, such as family support? Deputy McHugh referred to one case and we have heard similar cases. I urge the Minister of State to take a very strong hand with the Road Safety Authority on this issue.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply and I am really glad there is such progress being made for prospective drivers, with the acceleration of theory tests from 15,000 per month to 25,000 per month being a huge help, especially when combined with the 10,000 online theory tests. It is great to hear plans to accelerate that further to 50,000 tests per month. The fact that one in every six theory test applicants is a no-show is certainly not helping matters. I encourage anyone who cannot make the theory test appointment to cancel it in advance.

I am particularly pleased the move to the online theory test is working well. This was a key recommendation in the proposal I sent to the Minister of State's Department based on feedback from local driving instructors in my area in Clondalkin, Lucan, Palmerstown, Newcastle and Rathcoole. Getting a driving licence is a rite of passage for many young people and we must do what we can to get them motoring.

I appreciate that the Minister of State cannot make individual interventions but I reiterate my request to make a special case for people with disabilities who have been waiting or who have been let down. They have to go through a longer process than others because they have to go for the primary certificates as well. I am making this intervention on behalf of a cohort of people rather than an individual, and it emphasises the importance of this for young people with disabilities. They had to spend so much time at home in lockdown, like others, but the difference is this cohort must go through a longer process. The least we can do is look at a policy to highlight the important point that there is a cohort of people who have been let down and have had to go through a longer process. We should give them priority. It would not require much imagination but rather a policy intervention on the part of the Minister.

I thank the Deputies for raising the matter. I completely understand the frustration and concerns, particularly with young people who want to get on the road, get driving and through the theory test.

In my opening remarks I highlighted that the online service is up to 10,000 tests per month but the real way to expedite the processing of the backlog is through in-person theory tests in testing centres. That capacity pre-Covid was 15,000 tests and it is now 25,000 tests per month. Deputy Calleary asked about the timeline for increasing this to 50,000 tests per month and it will be based on public health directions. I know the Department of Transport is working with the RSA on that. There are 116,000 scheduled theory tests so once 50,000 tests per month are allowed, it will get through the theory test backlog pretty swiftly.

Deputy McHugh highlighted a case and I know it is very frustrating for many young people who are trying to access services. Special cases are operational matters for the RSA but I know the driver theory test provider makes special arrangements on the day for people with special needs. Concerns were also raised around the closure of some centres and I can follow up in order to get details for the Deputy.

There is progress in the online theory test process. The fastest way to get through the backlog is by using the in-person theory tests in centres, and the RSA has said the operator will supply extra staff in order to try to get through the backlog as quickly as possible. The Deputies can rest assured that I completely understand their frustrations and the Department is working in conjunction with the RSA on whatever we can do to expedite the matter.

Olympic Games

The Tokyo Olympics commence on 23 July, which is in a couple of weeks, with 103 Irish athletes setting sail today. I believe the Minister of State was part of the team sending them off and well done to her for doing it. We wish them every success. It is Team Ireland and we hope they do us proud.

One sport will not be represented at the games. Despite securing qualification in June 2019 at an event in Germany, the Irish dressage team will not send a team to compete. The team qualified but for various reasons the original team members could not partake in the games after they were delayed. Rather than sending a replacement team, Horse Sport Ireland and the coach decided to send no team at all. It is not that the team did not want or was not able to go but it was prevented from going, which is a real travesty.

We know what this sport can give all of us as a nation when we get behind the flag. The Irish football team gave us much joy and success over many years and decades, even when it did not qualify for international tournaments. Katie Taylor has done us proud on many occasions in the boxing ring, as have many other boxers. Annalise Murphy did much for the sport of sailing when she qualified in 2012 and secured a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics. It is a sport, no more than dressage, that enjoyed an elevated status because of her success.

A sport also gets a lift from participation. Tennis clubs around the country report great interest during the Wimbledon tournament every year and a sport in the spotlight showcases talents and abilities. People watch and follow it, taking an interest. Dressage is a small sport at national level but it is very important, with a cohort of committed participants. It is also a sport that is very inclusive and both my daughters ride dressage. They reminded me on the way up this evening that it is a gender-neutral sport because there is no separate class for men and women. Both compete at the same levels and classes. It is also a sport where people of all ages can compete. It is accessible and disability-friendly, with many riders participating despite having disabilities.

This was a chance to showcase Irish sport, horses and riders across the world. As a Kildare representative, I am acutely aware of the importance of the horse industry to Ireland and Kildare, which is its heart. The participants are important but the industry is vital for related industries, including breeders, farmers, trainers, farriers and other suppliers.

The whole mix is contingent on international success. This is a team that qualified. After 32 years of trying we got a place there. We had secured our place and had our pass. Yet, the plane left today with those empty seats because of a decision that I am still struggling to comprehend, which was not to send the team and not to send a replacement team. There are all kinds of question marks around that decision and I might come back to this in replies.

Ultimately, Ireland qualified and had a place and we decided not to send the alternative team. The decision was announced on the day of the deadline and it was too late to turn it around. I am told that the coach is based in California and has been selecting participants by Zoom calls. A standard had been set of 68% criteria, but 66% is the international normal metric. There are many questions that surround that process. The bottom line is that there are three empty seats in the Tokyo Olympics. When the eyes of the world turn to the dressage arena during those games there will be no Irish flag in the arena. That is a crying shame for Irish participants, for dressage riders and for Ireland. It is too late unfortunately because the team has gone. I really believe that this needs to be followed up and investigated as to why this was allowed to happen, and to prevent any recurrence.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I fully understand and acknowledge the disappointment of Dressage Ireland and individual riders at the decision not to send a dressage team to the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo.

I know that it is very frustrating for those riders who had secured a place at the Olympics to accept the decision that was made by Horse Sport Ireland not to send a team. I absolutely acknowledge how difficult this has been for those individual riders, as the Deputy has outlined.

My role and the role of my Department is in developing policy for sport. The national governing bodies, NGBs, develop and deliver their sport, working with their club networks, affiliates and sponsors. This includes the effective operation of their sport, hosting, sanctioning and delivery of events, and the selection of teams for international competition. I do not have a role in these operational matters of NGBs and it would not be correct for me to get involved in such matters. The situation that has arisen in this case is that an Olympic place had been secured by dressage riders but Horse Sport Ireland made a decision not to send a team. The decision of the NGB has been made and the appeals processes has been outlined also. That is entirely a matter for Horse Sport Ireland and it is important that I respect their autonomy in this matter.

The selection process for all Olympic athletes and teams is managed through the national governing bodies of sport and the Olympic Federation of Ireland. The relevant national governing body for equestrian sport is Horse Sport Ireland. As part of the process, the national governing bodies agree a comprehensive selection policy with the Olympic Federation of Ireland in advance of the games. Neither I nor Sport Ireland has any role in the Olympic team selection process. All national governing bodies of sport, including Horse Sport Ireland, are independent autonomous bodies and are responsible for their own governance procedures, competition rules for their sports and team selection procedures.

I understand that the decision of Horse Sport Ireland not to select a dressage team was appealed through Horse Sport Ireland's internal process and through an independent dispute resolution mechanism and that the decision of Horse Sport Ireland was upheld in both instances. It would be inappropriate for me to intervene in any individual dispute regarding team selection or to comment on whether any individual sport is or is not represented at the games. The Minister with responsibility for sport of the day coming in and picking a team for a sporting event more broadly could be problematic for obvious reasons. Nor would it be appropriate for the Minister of the day to intervene in controversial rule changes that may take place from time to time.

Last week, the Olympic Federation of Ireland announced the equestrian team to represent Ireland in Tokyo. Ireland will be represented by one individual dressage rider, Heike Holstein. Heike has previously represented Ireland at three Olympic Games as an individual. I wish her and all of the other members of the equestrian team every success at the games and I am sure that they will do their sport and Ireland proud.

The Deputy will be aware that the Olympic Games commence on 23 July with the Paralympic Games following on from 24 August. Currently, 103 athletes have qualified for the Olympic Games, with 26 slots qualified for the Paralympic Games. This will be Ireland's largest ever team at the games. This will be an unusual Olympics as the events will be taking place with no spectators, due to the latest state of emergency announced in Tokyo. Many of our athletes have already arrived in Japan and the vast majority - over 90% - of the Irish team, including support staff, will be vaccinated before travelling. This is an exciting team for all our athletes heading to Tokyo. While these Olympic and Paralympic Games might be different from what we are used to, I know that every member of Team Ireland will give their absolute best. I hope that they will all enjoy the experience and I have no doubt that they will do Ireland proud and will be excellent ambassadors for our country at the games.

I would like to take the opportunity to inform the House that the Sport Ireland high performance strategy was launched on the 24 of June. This strategy defines Ireland's high performance ambitions for the next decade. It spans three Olympiads, out to 2032.

I thank the Minister of State. I listened with interest to his reply. This is a taxpayer-funded sport, and certainly the governing body is taxpayer funded. The selection process and the Olympic Games delegation would receive similar taxpayer funding. The coach, who is a resident of California I am told, is taxpayer funded. I am not sure how appropriate it is for someone who has not set foot in the State for 18 months to be selecting a team where the nominations closed a few weeks ago. I also appreciate that the Minister of State cannot pick the teams, but perhaps the Minister of State could have mandated that a team be sent, provided that the team met certain criteria, which I am told they had. I would not expect any Government Minister or official to get involved in the who or what within that. Not sending a team at all, however, is outrageous and is a national scandal. The Minister of State was quite correct that Heike Holstein will be competing at individual level and I wish her every success. Ms Holstein is an accomplished rider and would have been part of the team had the whole team been able to be sent and had there been a team entry, which there is not.

I do not want to get into apportioning blame but I must ask a number of questions that have been put to me about the appeals process. I have already highlighted that the coach is overseas. The decision appears to have been made on the final day and when it was announced it was almost too late to appeal. There were a couple of appeals, one of which was given only partial information. One of the riders, James Connor was not apparently informed that having already engaged with Horse Sport Ireland prior to that he had actually secured Olympic accreditation. This may have influenced the decision. A number of questions have to be asked.

There is another point to be made, which I appreciate might be hearsay but it came out in the appeals process that a phrase was used where the back-up team were described as opportunistic. I am quite shocked that would be thrown out as some kind of apparently derogatory term. Anybody in sport, in life, in politics and in business should be opportunistic. It is called ambition. We had a by-election candidate, a fine new Teachta Dála, Deputy Bacik, elected into this House today because another Member had stood aside and created a vacancy. That is what is done to succeed, stepping forward when the door opens and taking the chance. Our riders tried to do that in this case but were prevented from doing that. It is outrageous to dismiss them for having the temerity to try to represent their country.

As I said in my initial remarks I accept and acknowledge that it is very frustrating for the riders who had secured a place to accept the decision made by Horse Sport Ireland and how difficult that is. The role specific to national governing bodies is that they deliver and develop their sport, working with their club networks, affiliates and partners. Obviously, that involves structures and rules, selection policies and performance targets.

On the Olympic Games, the selection process is managed directly through the national governing bodies of sport, with the Olympic Federation of Ireland. That is a comprehensive selection policy developed prior to the games. Each national governing body is an independent and autonomous body responsible for their own governance, procedures, competition rules for their sport and team selection procedures. I understand that the decision of Horse Sport Ireland was appealed through their own processes, and externally appealed through the independent dispute resolution mechanism. That underpins any decision made by the relevant national governing body.

The Deputy might have specific issues, as he referenced, with how that operated. It would then be a matter for the riders themselves to present particular information to Horse Sport Ireland. Obviously there are independent mechanisms they have tried to avail of regarding their own specific appeal. As the Deputy has acknowledged, it would be inappropriate for me to intervene in any individual dispute regarding team selection or to decide who should and should not be represented specifically at the games.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.50 p.m. until 9.15 a.m. on Wednesday, 14 July 2021.