Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Regeneration Projects

This is a difficult subject because it is a very difficult, layered and multifaceted problem. I have been contacted in recent days by residents of the Oliver Bond flats complex, just down the road from here in the south-west inner city. They are concerned about the ongoing drug-dealing in the community and the intimidation and lawlessness that goes with it. There is huge concern and anger within the Oliver Bond complex regarding this kind of behaviour. Residents feel theirs is a forgotten estate. I can understand where that is coming from. There is a lack of services in the area. There is a lack of action on the damp in the flats; 82.8% of households were complaining about damp and mould issues. Residents describe having to wipe down children's schoolbags before they go to school in the mornings as they are covered in mould.

There are plans for regeneration. There have been for a very long time. Currently the projected timeline for regeneration for the community there is 15 years. That is an entire childhood. For a child born now and living in the Oliver Bond complex, his or her entire childhood would be spent in substandard accommodation. This contributes to the feeling of it being a forgotten estate, contributes to the drug-dealing, to the crime and creates a vicious cycle of disadvantage. The residents are demanding action on the damp in their apartments. They are demanding action on the lack of services, of green spaces and of facilities. All of this, as I said, contributes to the crime that is blighting their lives and which they have been contacting me about. This is not the first time. Other Deputies in the area have raised these issues. I have been working with my local colleague, Councillor Michael Pidgeon, to raise these issues and to push them. What these residents need now is a clear timetable for when the regeneration will happen. They need financial support to provide a regeneration worker. We need funding for interim measures. While some of these interim measures may ameliorate the damp and other problems, this is a huge budget in terms of Dublin City Council's ability to renovate apartments and conduct maintenance on flats in its own housing stock. Thus we need support from the Government to help ensure these things happen.

Equally, more long-term measures are needed to address the background problems. In recent months the after-school services have come under significant pressure, given there are now cuts facing after-school services where the parents are not in employment. This ignores the role of aftercare projects with regard to educational disadvantage, social disadvantage, poverty and social exclusion. I am jumping around Departments. I have mentioned justice, housing, childcare and education. That reflects the ingrained nature of many of the problems here. Quite simply, the residents have had enough. They are saying very loudly they have had enough. They need a clear timetable for when works will happen. They need a regeneration worker to support that and they need funding now for interim measures so they are not waiting 15 years. As I said, 15 years is an entire childhood for someone growing up in the Oliver Bond flats right now.

I thank Deputy Costello for raising this very important matter. I am glad to have the opportunity to provide the House with an update on the housing conditions at Oliver Bond House. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is committed to ensuring that tenants in social housing are provided with adequate housing that meets the standards most recently laid down in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2019. The Department is actively engaging with the local authority sector to promote the preventive maintenance of local authority housing stock and provides significant funding for stock improvement works. In addition to funding provided by the local authorities themselves in respect of their own housing stock, the Department provides funding across a number of programmes to support local authorities to work to maintain and improve their social housing stock. In all cases, it is the local authorities that identify priorities. The continued work of local authorities in undertaking stock condition surveys, their responsive and planned maintenance programmes, as well as important programmes such as the energy retrofitting and voids programmes seeks to support the local authorities' maintenance programmes.

With specific regard to Oliver Bond House, it was built in 1936 and is one of the oldest and largest flat complexes in Dublin with 397 units and approximately 1,200 residents. The upkeep, refurbishment and regeneration of this social housing complex is a matter, in the first instance, for the local authority. However, it is my understanding that Dublin City Council is actively engaged with the residents and is working on a number of short-term projects to improve the outdoor and common areas as well as long-term proposals for the retrofitting and refurbishment of the flats at Oliver Bond House. Dublin City Council is currently working on proposals and designs for an extensive regeneration programme that will see the total refurbishment of all 397 flats at Oliver Bond House in two phases to bring them up to modern standards, including those with respect to size and energy efficiency. Dublin City Council has indicated that a stage 1 funding application for this regeneration programme is expected to be submitted to the Department by the end of this month. I understand that, as part of this programme, Dublin City Council is in the process of establishing a regeneration community forum for the Oliver Bond complex. The Department is supportive of the regeneration of Oliver Bond House and looks forward to receiving this submission for funding consideration and will work with Dublin City Council to ascertain the appropriate funding mechanisms for this programme.

While the ongoing issues of anti-social behaviour in Oliver Bond House are a matter for Dublin City Council and An Garda Síochána, Dublin City Council has advised it is aware of serious estate management issues in Oliver Bond House. Dublin City Council is working very closely with An Garda Síochána and is actively engaging with residents and assisting them at an individual level to address issues brought to its attention both directly and through the Robert Emmet Community Development Project, CDP. Dublin City Council officials also attend meetings with residents' groups to hear their concerns. There are monthly meetings with An Garda Síochána and Dublin City Council's area office and there is ongoing co-operation to investigate complaints of alleged drug distribution. All complaints are investigated. If it is a criminal matter the complainant must be referred to An Garda Síochána. If An Garda Síochána makes the council aware a tenant has used his or her flat for the sale, supply or manufacture of illegal drugs then the council can act within the civil powers to seek an undertaking regarding future behaviour or recovery of the dwelling. Dublin City Council has also installed state-of-the-art security cameras to assist with the investigation of complaints of anti-social behaviour such as those referred to by the Deputy.

I thank the Minister of State for that response. Estate management is a much more difficult task when an estate is not receiving the funding or support it needs. It is a much more difficult task when the estate is facing an uphill struggle in terms of disadvantage. The Robert Emmet CDP, which the Minister of State mentioned, is doing excellent work.

Some of the excellent work it is doing highlights the depth of the problems here. In a recent survey, it said that 98% of residents were afraid to complain to Dublin City Council for fear of losing their housing. This, in particular, is a reflection of the housing crisis, which we all talk about, but also a reflection of how difficult it is to take the steps you talk about when things are a matter for DCC and An Garda Síochána. The Robert Emmet Community Development Project also identified a huge number of apartments - I think it was 82.8% or 83% - affected by damp. The total refurbishment is a positive step that we must welcome. However, the timelines on that are anywhere from ten to 15 years. We need interim measures now.

Dublin City Council has given a commitment to fund its own independent study to identify key remediation works that can be done in the short term so that the lives of residents are not blighted by damp and the estate management can be improved, while waiting those ten to 15 years for the total refurbishment. The budgetary cost of that, in terms of the Dublin City Council maintenance budget, would be massive and very difficult for the council. In terms of the national budget, however, it is not a very large figure. These are the sorts of things on which the Department needs to support Dublin City Council so that it can ultimately support the wider population in the estate and make a start on addressing all those multi-faceted issues that I raised in the first half.

I thank Deputy Costello for raising these important issues. I know the seriousness with which the Government takes this matter. The Taoiseach was on the site, as the Deputy will be aware. This is getting the highest priority in Government. There are a number of areas that Dublin City Council is currently assisting in terms of remedial works. I also mentioned the refurbishment programme for the 397 flats. We are awaiting a funding proposal for the programme for consideration by the Department over the coming weeks. It is also worth noting, as the Deputy quite rightly said, that we build sustainable communities. Related to that, Dublin City Council is working on a new all-weather surface mini-pitch complex. It is working with the community to drive the football club forward. In essence, that will build a sustainable model that is so badly needed for people in the area.

I assure the Deputy that in the first instance the Department will work together with the community, as well as with Dublin City Council, An Garda Síochána and all the State agencies to try to resolve the anti-social issues there. The one thing that is very clear to me is that there are so many genuine people and families that get caught up with this pressure. They feel victimised and under pressure, as the Deputy quite rightly pointed out. We will be not be found wanting in that regard, or in terms of the voids programme that is currently under way to upgrade a number of the complexes. I assure the Deputy that we will keep the lines of communication with him open. If any further issues arise, we would be delighted to respond to him.

Hospital Services

The second matter I have selected is from Deputies Niamh Smyth and Holly Cairns who wish to discuss when the current restrictions will be lifted so that partners can accompany women to maternity care appointments. The Minister of State, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, will respond to the matter. The Deputies have two minutes each.

I am delighted the Minister of State has stayed until this hour of the night to respond to the matter. I am sure that I do not need to convince her of the importance of this debate and this argument. It is pitiful that 18 or 19 months on, we are still having this discussion about women and basic healthcare in maternity services around the country.

There are 19 maternity services around the country. It has to be said at the outset that not every maternity service within a hospital is restrictive, draconian or dogmatic in terms of the restrictions imposed. It is important to state that they are imposing these on women. The clear message that has to come from the debate tonight is that we, as women in the Oireachtas, are calling for a return to pre-pandemic access for women. They should be allowed to be accompanied by one partner when accessing maternity services and wards, and as they go through this critical, crucial and emotional journey through our hospital services.

There have been 96,000 births since the beginning of Covid-19. That number does not include the thousands of women who have suffered pregnancy loss. We, as Oireachtas Members, have had the privilege of listening to the women leading the campaign for better maternity care for women. Some of those women have relayed heart-breaking stories of being through their second and third pregnancy journeys during the pandemic, as well as the impact that is having on them. There are no happy stories coming from women who have been through the journey.

As I said, it is important to note that not every hospital is draconian in its measures. The point that I am trying to make is that 90% of our population has now been vaccinated. We are now back to being able to converse and to have a debate in the Dáil, and there are 40,000 allowed into Croke Park. We want to go back to pre-pandemic access to maternity services for women and partners.

Deputy Smyth articulated that perfectly. All of the women in the Oireachtas are calling for this. It was all well said by Deputy Smyth. I first raised this issue more than a year ago. Since then, there have been considerable changes. We are close to most of the restrictions across all of society being eased. More than 90% of over 16-year-olds are fully vaccinated, yet, restrictions still remain in accompanying people to maternity hospitals. Despite the opening of pubs, sports, offices, bingo and almost everything, women are still expected to endure prolonged labour and to care for their new born alone. This is not to mention the partners who have at times received the most difficult and tragic news on their own in hospital car parks.

There is deep frustration and anger, not only about this issue, but about the inconsistencies from the Government and HSE. If one goes onto the HSE webpage for hospital visiting restrictions, one will find a significant difference in the restrictions between maternity hospitals and units. Over the last year, I have raised the kind of post code lottery in relation to this. The goal posts have shifted every time I raised this issue. It has shifted from being a HSE issue, to a local hospital group issue, to waiting for vaccine roll-out, to cramped conditions in our older hospitals.

The Rotunda Hospital was insistent on its restrictions until the outrage at the filming of the television series. This was filmed at a time when partners were not allowed in. Once that pressure came, it miraculously eased restrictions. Back in May, as we all know, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, said that there was no good reason in public health terms for maternity hospitals to restrict visits from partners. Then in June, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, said that all of the State’s maternity units will be following the same visiting guidelines for patients' partners.

However, we are now at the stage where some women, as Deputy Smyth said, are going through their second birth alone during the pandemic. The approach taken over the past 12 months has not worked. I am asking if the Government can please gather all the heads together to try to address the situation once and for all.

It is fair to say that the female Oireachtas Members have the total support of the male Members in their demands.

It must be confusing for people watching to hear that all of the female and male Members want this, yet it still has not happened. Why is that the case?

I am sure the Minister of State will cast some light on that now.

I get all the good ones, a Cheann Comhairle.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly. While I will deliver his script, I have my own opinion as well, which I would be happy to share with the Deputies.

Can you skip to that bit?

I want to thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the topic on the floor of the House. It is not the first time that I have responded to this matter. I think it might be the third time. I think I responded to Deputy Neale Richmond as well as to Deputy Cairns previously. This is my third time to respond to this matter.

I assure the House and the Deputies present that I completely understand and recognise the concerns and anxiety that the restrictions have caused to women and their partners over the course of this pandemic. The importance of partners attending with women at maternity appointments is well recognised, including by everyone working in the provision of maternity care. At the same time, the advice is that the potential for Covid-19 to spread maternity services continues to be very real. The highest priority must be given to protecting the health and the safety of the women and the babies in our care. The HSE guidance on attendance at maternity hospitals aims to manage that balance, while reflecting its commitment to providing increased access for nominated support partners. I am heartened to see that many restrictions have now been reduced and that there is now greater access for partners of women accessing maternity care. The clinical guidance has allowed for a broadening of that access, while at the same time ensuring that maternity services continue to provide care safely and protect women and their pregnancies from Covid-19.

The latest guidance of 3 September sets out that controls on access for partners should be the minimum required to manage infection prevention and control risks, and that any restrictions must be clearly explained and should be applied with consideration for individual circumstances and needs. No matter where the hospital or what the outbreak, that individual need should be taken seriously into consideration. The updated guidance deals with facilitating access for nominated support partners where women are attending for antenatal care, during labour and childbirth and in relation to postnatal care.

If a hospital places any additional limitations on partner access, the guidance stipulates that those restrictions should be based on a documented risk assessment that is reviewed regularly and is readily available, for example on the hospital’s website. There should be no contradictory evidence between the Department of Health and any of the 19 maternity hospitals around the country. If there is an outbreak of Covid, the Department would need to be notified and be aware of it, but it cannot be done on an ad hoc basis to suit whatever political agenda there may be in any particular maternity hospital.

To ensure that the current situation is clearly communicated, the HSE has advised that hospital groups continue to update their websites to reflect the current position and that it is now publishing the guidance on its website. In addition, arrangements are in place for each hospital group director of nursing and midwifery to monitor compliance so that access for partners to maternity services is facilitated and consistent with the guidance.

I indicated to the Department that I might have to move a little off-script as it would be unforgivable of me to stand here tonight without recognising the fact that a particular hospital allowed a TV company in to film while partners sat outside in their cars waiting to see how their partner was progressing in labour or, worse, finding themselves in the horrific position where there was no delivery, but they were after losing a child. It is time for the 19 maternity hospitals to show leadership on this. We need the hospital midwifery sections, which are normally led by women, to stand up and take ownership of the matter by coming forward and bringing maternity services into line with how we are doing infection protection and prevention in all other parts of the health system. Maternity should not be left behind.

I know the Minister of State is very passionate about this. Both the Taoiseach and the Minister have stood up and said this is not on. They have called on the hospital directors and masters of the maternity units to get on with lifting those restrictions and allowing partners in. It would be remiss of me not to say that my own hospital, Cavan General Hospital - and not everyone is lucky enough to have a maternity unit - is letting partners in. One of my own staff who is going through that journey is having a lovely experience and her partner has been allowed in with her. There is a midwifery-led unit there. They could come up with loads of reasons they would not allow a partner in but that is not the case and they are. Every hospital should be working in the same vein and allowing partners in with the mothers. It is not just a women's issue; it is a family issue. The Ceann Comhairle has rightly pointed out that the men or partners left out in the car park are equally upset about this. Their voices have to be heard in this debate as well.

I also want to make the point that there is an opportunity here. There has been an explosion in home births. A cousin who went through this chose, because of Covid, to have a home birth. There is huge leniency towards that. There is an opportunity with the Department, the HSE and maternity services to embrace that, to nurture it and to allow women to have that choice and make it more readily available.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. We all appreciate the complexity of the situation. We understand that nobody has the interests of the newborn more at heart than the expectant or new parents. They deserve as much certainty and clear guidance as possible and support from a partner through all stages of the journey, and that has to happen immediately.

We hear that the Minister has called for this and the Taoiseach has called for that, but the statement the Minister of State read on behalf of them includes stipulations. I reiterate what I said earlier: the CMO has said there is no good reason in public health terms for these restrictions. It cannot be a bit of both. We must be firm on this because it has gone on for so long. There are people going in for a second time.

Last December, the HSE reclassified partners as essential accompanying persons for the purpose of the 20-week scan. Maybe we could reclassify partners as essential accompanying persons for the entire maternity journey so that no matter how restrictions are looked at or revised, that remains the same. We are talking about giving rise to risk. We have had this conversation before but if a partner has brought the mother to the hospital in the car, they are arguably already a close contact. We should also consider the percentage of vaccinated people. I encourage the Minister to look into reclassifying partners on a permanent basis for the entire maternity journey.

I am aware that Senator Doherty is having a meeting with the HSE tomorrow. All female Members, including the two Ministers of State in the Department of Health and all other female Ministers, have signed a supporting document. I call on the HSE to meet with the female Members of the Oireachtas tomorrow evening, to take on board all the suggestions and to show leniency, tolerance and empathy to the women coming into their maternity wards.

I wish to put on notice that in addition, the women of the Oireachtas have agreed to bring this up at every opportunity until it is agreed. We brought it up at the Committee on Public Accounts last week, during Questions on Promised Legislation today and again this evening. We will bring it up every day.

I will facilitate you raising it here as often as you like.

And the same in the Seanad.

The same in the Seanad.

Disability Services

I know the Minister of State is familiar with this important issue. Carmona school is located in Dún Laoghaire, which is the constituency of my colleague, Deputy Carroll MacNeill. It services the entire county of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. Many parents in my constituency are facing an extremely difficult time because they are unable to have the proper services provided to their children in this school. I remind the Minister of State of the meeting she held with the parents and the principal of the school in May when she gave a guarantee that services would be returned to pre-Covid-19 levels in this very important school. While I understand that the HSE has returned staff to their allocated hours, it is much less than the service the school provided prior to the pandemic. It is harrowing for so many parents whose children are in the school, for the teachers, for the wider school community and for so many people involved. There has not been a speech and language therapist in the school since February. There are extremely vulnerable children at risk who are not receiving the duty of care from the State in the school. It is not good enough. I am appealing, with Deputy Carroll MacNeill, that this be remedied as quickly as possible.

As I know the Minister of State is deeply aware, Carmona is not a school as such. I want to thank her for her constant engagement, good faith and commitment to this issue, including coming out and meeting people. She has been exceptional on the issue. However, on behalf of the parents, I want to put on the record of the House that Carmona is not a school but a centre of excellence for children with severe to profound intellectual disability. I have spoken to parents today, with whom the Minister of State has interacted. They described how their children need constant therapeutic supports. As an example of the need for on-site clinicians, one patient is a boy of senior infants age but he is not in senior infants and never will be. He is not going into first class either. His number one learning goal this year is to bring a spoon from a bowl of food to his mouth and back down again. He has three therapy-based learning goals. They do not involve reading, writing or arithmetic. That is not on the cards. Three are four adults and five children in this room because that is what the children need. Both of that young boy's hips are dislocated. If he is uncomfortable or in pain, he has no means of shifting his position. He needs constant therapeutic oversight and support to prevent scoliosis and to help him to communicate. There is no way of deconstructing his therapy and learning needs. Another girl who is ten years of age cannot communicate at all. The speech and language therapies are not there for her. As a result, her behaviour is regressing because she cannot communicate her frustration. She cannot communicate anything to her family. She does not sleep much.

Her parents are trying to look after her now without support but also trying to navigate a constant dialogue with the HSE, in which they have lost faith. I am aware that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, shares some frustration on this, and having dealt with the parents with this length of time it is understandable why. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response and perhaps I will come back in at a later stage.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. As Deputy Carroll MacNeill said, it is not a school in the ordinary sense of a school and it is important for people who are looking in here to understand this. We are discussing the most vulnerable young people in society. The Deputies will be aware that I have met with parents and families of Carmona on a number of occasions, as well as visiting Carmona earlier this year with Deputies Devlin and Carroll MacNeill. I know all too well the difficulties they have faced during the roll-out of the progressing disability services model, PDS, in this area. PDS should never have been a one-size-fits-all.

I also recognise the challenges in meeting the demand for children's disability services and I am acutely aware of how this impacts on children and their families in these most difficult and challenging times. That said, I assure the House that from my perspective the HSE carried out all requests and directions made by myself when it came to pausing the removal of therapy posts from special schools. The pause button was hit so I could work with the Department and HSE on securing an additional 85 therapists for our special schools, which was successfully achieved before the summer, including the posts remaining in Carmona.

I sincerely thank the Minister of State, not just for her reply but also for her continuing efforts in this regard. We are grateful, particularly for her frankness. We talk about points on a scale and spreadsheets, but the fact is that much of this is beyond stressful and it is down to a breakdown in communication. It is no criticism of the Minister of State, but we all share the feeling that it is simply not good enough. It is not good enough for the children who attend the service and who are at constant choke risk. It is not good enough with regard to the position in which they find themselves. It is not good enough for their parents and guardians who lie awake sleepless at night wondering if their children are safe to going to Carmona the next day. I genuinely thank the Minister of State for her frankness and her response. I stress that time is of the essence. While a stopgap has been put in place it is important, to give the peace of mind and security for this entire community, that the recruitment is done in a timely and efficient manner.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I have a list of our back and forth, which shows quite how engaged she is. I acknowledge what she said about the assessment of services. She will also understand that at this stage the parents do not care why it was assessed wrongly. They do not have the therapists they need. They will not care about Excel. I have dealt with the HSE and I have heard about Excel spreadsheets previously. My question back to the HSE is why this did not raise questions for them. Why is it such an under-provision given that we know how serious this is and we know how the Minister of State has made directions on this? In the parents' words, we are talking about the most disabled children in the State. It is mind-numbing that the HSE would not have reacted more forcefully to challenge an assessment of that kind. There should be no need for the parents to have to be as engaged as they are on this issue. They should not have to contact people like me, the Minister of State or anybody else. It was anticipated and well flagged. There was no handover by the HSE when the social work services were removed. I know one woman whose 11-year-old son has extreme behavioural problems, and she has had no social worker since June. There was no handover. If I was going on holiday I would do a handover in order that somebody could cover my work. The HSE did not anticipate a handover for the social work need of this kind. This mother has had no behavioural therapy and no respite. The family is considering bringing the child to the emergency department because they have no place else to go at this stage.

I thank the Deputies. Since yesterday, and to complete this work in a timely and safe manner, I have been informed by the HSE that the CDNT manager has increased the clinical resource in addition to the original allocation on a temporary basis from the existing team. I am also happy to confirm that the CEO of Enable Ireland, the HSE chief officer for the area, the disability head of services, and the CDNT, will schedule a meeting with the children's families separately to the meetings with the principal of Carmona in the coming weeks - within the next two weeks - to get the clear understanding, as articulated here this evening by the Deputies - and to see the parents in front of them. While they may not need to be made to understand perhaps they need to be re-informed and retold that this situation is not like everyone else. It is a little different. These are the most vulnerable. For a child to be in discomfort, he or she needs that additional help and assistance. They are dependent on more speech and language, physio and occupational therapies.

To be honest, I was fortunate that the Taoiseach supported me and the Minister Deputy Donnelly, in acquiring, mid-season, 85 additional therapist posts. I will not be found wanting for what is required to fill the gap in Carmona. Whatever the outcome, I just want an outcome from the HSE which is to tell me what the shortfall is so we can ensure delivery of services in Carmona and get on with delivering services and rolling out the PDS model.

Is the Minister of State also dealing with Topical Issue No. 4?

I am. This is a new one for me now.

Public Transport

This important matter has been submitted by Deputies Duncan Smith, Ellis, Alan Farrell and O'Reilly. They wish to discuss reported changes in the national development plan, NDP, with regard to Metro North and DART+.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte for taking the debate. With two Ministers in the Department of Transport, it is unfortunate that not one of them is here, but I look forward to the script they have sent. Hopefully it will calm the anger in the community, particularly in Swords, north County Dublin, which is based on the reports in the Mail on Sunday that metro north was going to be delayed by many years. There is such anger because over the past three years, and for the first time in this drawn-out process, the people in the town finally believed that something was happening. They were seeing ground testing works and over the past few months they were engaging in deep planning consultations with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, on route planning. It felt that we were getting close to it. Master plans were agreed on the basis of this. This report has landed, and it has angered the community to a level I have not experienced.

I look forward to what the Minister of State will have to say. I hope this will turn out to be an unfortunate couple of days and that we can move beyond it. If it is not, then we are in major trouble.

Dublin Airport is one of the few large airports in Europe without a direct rail link to the city centre and its suburbs. The metro north project has a history of promises made and broken with delay after delay in its construction start time. Millions of euro have already been spent on consultations, designs, compulsory purchase and so on. Any further delays will add substantially to the costs. According to the Mail on Sunday, further delays are being considered and this proposal was brought to Cabinet last July. I ask the Minister of State if there is any truth in this and, if so, why it has not been made public by the Government. There must be immediate clarity on this as it is causing significant anxiety and confusion across north Dublin. It is a vital project for the environment and has the potential to remove tens of thousands of vehicles each week from our roads. It is also essential for job growth and will have a very significant effect on this Government’s housing proposals.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her presence at this late hour. This is a very important discussion following the concern expressed after the publication of the article on Sunday. While a great deal of clarity has been provided with the Tánaiste’s intervention this afternoon after Deputies Ellis and McAuliffe raised it on Questions on Promised Legislation, what my colleagues have expressed is completely accurate. Many people have put a great amount of time and effort, not just Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, but members of the public as well, together with public representatives of all parties and none, to get this project where it is today following the setback during the economic crisis. This project was put back on the agenda in November 2018 and has been progressing, albeit slowly, since then.

The disappointment expressed by constituents of mine and by those of Deputies Duncan Smith and O’Reilly in recent days has been quite remarkable. There have been, as has been mentioned, planning consents granted on the basis of the delivery of this project. There has been very significant public consultation and very significant housing planned across these constituencies and, as Deputy Ellis has pointed out, Ireland is the only country out of the 45 countries in the OECD that does not have a rail connection to its capital city airport, and that must change.

It is regrettable that nobody from the Department of Transport could be here but I thank the Minister of State for being here this evening. This project has been around for decades. There have been plenty of false dawns. When Fianna Fáil crashed our economy off a cliff, it was shelved and delayed. People have bought homes with pictures of the metro they might be getting on going past their door. They are now looking at their children going off to school in great traffic jams. This is not just about the MetroLink but is also about the DART+ extension out to Balbriggan and serving all those towns along the commuter line. You only have to look around - I live in Skerries - to see children queueing up every morning to get into cars and travelling miles as they commute. The M1 is like a car park in the morning. We need to be taking cars off the road.

I very much hope the Minister of State has something better to tell us than the Tánaiste did today because his response to the effect that he had read the story and he did not know if was true is not good enough. The story referred to discussions that have taken place at Cabinet. I hope somebody was paying attention and that that person wrote the script for the Minister of State this evening.

I thank the Deputies for the opportunity to address this issue in the House today. I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and it is his Department that has written the script.

Improving public transport services and infrastructure is central to improving citizens' quality of life and addressing our climate action challenge. This Government is committed to a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland. As a Government we need to provide more options to people so they can make the switch to sustainable mobility. Within the greater Dublin area, work on both DART+ and MetroLink is continuing so they can become part of those options. DART+ is a programme which comprises five different projects, each of which is moving at different speeds and is at different stages of development, while MetroLink is likely the largest ever public investment project in the history of the State.

I have seen the media reports of recent days and think it useful to clarify what the current position is with both of these proposals. Both face imminent and important milestones in the coming months and these milestones will determine the progress of each in the coming years.

First, there is the Government's approval of the preliminary business case and, second, there is the submission of a railway order application to An Bord Pleanála. There has not been any impact on either of these two very significant milestones over recent days.

On the first milestone, the Department of Transport has received preliminary business cases for both. This represents decision gate 1 under the public spending code and those preliminary business cases are under review. For major projects like DART+ and MetroLink, the public spending code requires a Government decision and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, expects to seek such a Government decision in the near future. If approved by Government, that will allow the contracts to be signed on the DART+ fleet and will also allow MetroLink and DART+ West move into the statutory planning system, subject to the completion of the necessary planning and environmental documentation.

The second impending milestone is the submission of railway order applications for DART+ West and MetroLink. Those applications require the finalisation of an extensive set of documentation, including environmental impact assessment reports, and work is ongoing on both projects.

On MetroLink, the Minister informed the House last week of his understanding that an extensive body of work remains on finalising the preliminary design, completing the required environmental impact assessment reports and closing out property referencing issues. The Minister stated his understanding that this work would be completed during the first quarter of next year and, subject to the Government decision I mentioned earlier, the project will then be ready to seek planning permission.

On DART+, the most advanced of the proposed infrastructure projects is DART+ West. The second round of public consultation on DART+ West is ongoing until the end of this month. Issues raised during this consultation process, including those raised by public representatives, will need to be fully considered by the company and appropriately addressed before they are ready to enter the planning system, and that can take some time to complete. Once that is done, and similar to MetroLink, DART+West will then move into the planning system subject to Government approval and finalisation of planning documentation.

It is the case that these two milestones, Government approval and railway order application, are the fundamentally important ones for each of these projects. I reassure Deputies that there has been no Government decision to defer construction on either project. The key focus at a project level is to get the necessary documentation finalised to allow for a planning application and the key focus at departmental level is to conclude the review of the preliminary business case. I am happy to confirm the work is continuing on both with important progress expected in the coming months.

I will mention two things. This decision gate 1 language was introduced in parliamentary question replies just before the summer. It is a nonsense. This is a political decision that was made a number of years ago. MetroLink is the only show in town and has to be delivered upon. The reply states that extensive work is needed on the railway order applications. It is not extensive. These are reaching their finalised stage if you talk to anyone in TII or the National Transport Authority, NTA. We are being buttered up by the Minister for this project to be deferred or delayed. You cannot bring millions of people in on the second runway, or build at Fosterstown and not have a MetroLink. Thousands of people cannot be condemned to the traffic and congestion on the M1 when we have a climate crisis and not deliver the MetroLink. It will be a complete betrayal of the people of Swords and of everyone who lives along that line.

I have taken into account everything the Minister of State has said in that we need the railway order and business case. These were all included to finish by 2027. The report we are getting is that MetroLink will go on until 2034. We have no clarity on that. The Minister of State has avoided the whole issue of telling us - I appreciate she is acting on behalf of the Minister - if there will be a delay. It is very clear from what she is saying and it appears to me that this is going to be delayed. That is totally unacceptable. I do not know how many meetings and consultations I have attended on this issue and I am now very sick over the whole thing.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. This project has been a long time in the making and it is very clear we are now at the very last hurdle.

Transport Infrastructure Ireland is almost ready to go to planning. My understanding is it will be in quarter 1 of next year. The planning process will take approximately 12 months and then the procurement process will take between six and 12 months. Something new was introduced in April of this year, in that the projected timeline for the construction of the process moved from six years to six to eight years. That is the expertise in TII speaking, as opposed to any political ambitions. I accept that if TII says it will take six to eight years, it will take six to eight years, but I will not rest until the Cabinet has approved this process, as was committed to and as all of us went to the doors in our constituencies, on behalf of the people.

The report in the paper said 2034. The response the Minister of State read out did not contradict that. For the people who are listening this evening and waiting to have this project delivered, all they have is the report in the paper that it was discussed at the Cabinet, the Tánaiste saying he did not know; he was not listening. I do not know what happened. The date is still 2034 and nothing the Minister of State has said contradicts that. All of the houses that are being built, dependent on this transport, and all the people who are living there and waiting on this can hear is 2034. The date in the paper has not been contradicted. I know the Minister of State is here on behalf of the Minister. I appreciate it is not her Department and I thank her for being here, but the response she has given will not satisfy the people we are representing.

They must have anticipated that is where Deputy O'Reilly would leave off, given the opening line of my conclusion. As I said earlier, there has been no Government decision to defer the project. With regard to MetroLink, there remains an extensive body of work in finalising the preliminary design, completing the required environmental impact assessment report and closing out project property referencing issues before the railway order application will be ready for submission to An Bord Pleanála. Aspects of this work were impacted by Covid-19 restrictions early in the year and it is likely to be quarter 1 of 2022 before the rail order application will be ready, with submission to An Bord Pleanála expected shortly thereafter. The submission to An Bord Pleanála will be a very significant step, but it is only after the project receives planning permission that we will be best placed to talk of construction start dates.

With regard to the DART+ West railway order application, issues are being raised as part of the current round of public consultation, which will require further consideration by Iarnród Éireann before it will be ready to finalise its railway order application. These project-level issues on the finalisation of the railway order application are, in many ways, separate to the Department review of the preliminary business cases. However, there is a link in the sense that Government approval for both projects will be required in order to allow them to move into the statutory planning system.

On the basis of the current timelines, it would appear likely the Government will consider the matter well in advance of the railway order application being ready for submission. I thank all the Deputies for raising it; the opportunity to address the House on this matter and for the ongoing interest in support of MetroLink and DART+.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.24 p.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 September 2021.