Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Greenways Provision

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for being present again. There is a sense of déjà vu because having checked the record, I note that we discussed this matter on 17 November 2020. In the almost 12 months since, much water has passed under the bridge but we have cleared the latest hurdle through the most recent decision of the High Court to rule in favour of the greenway project. I am therefore here again tonight to reiterate the requirement for funding for the south Kerry greenway, which will be an iconic and world-class greenway once it is constructed. I am very hopeful we will have the ultimate green light in the very near future and complete the planning process for the initial and substantive phases of the greenway. As the Minister knows, it will require substantial up-front investment. I estimate in excess of €20 million will be required.

My understanding is the funding would be delivered under the new model through Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. This will involve the Minister's Department and I hope it will involve a Government decision as the project will be of national importance. It will not just be a local or regional project.

I know the Minister is very passionate about this and he knows the territory well. He is very familiar with it. When we spoke last year, he was very passionate about the project and any time I speak with him in the corridors, I can tell he gets cycling. This project will be transformative for the entire region and marketable internationally as a national project.

We should bear in mind that if the up-front cost is in excess of €20 million, much of that will come back to the Exchequer in the construction phase. I am very confident, as all our research indicates, that within a very short time the revenue generated by this project will far outweigh any State investment required.

I ask the Minister to make provision for the construction funding that will be required for the south Kerry greenway. As I said, I am hopeful we will have the ultimate green light in a matter of days. At that stage, we must be ready to go as soon as possible in order to get this moving. The Minister knows the area of south Kerry I am talking about. It has suffered major decline over decades, particularly in the past 20 years when it suffered economically and socially. It has really struggled. If the arrival of the Farranfore-Valentia railway in 1893 to south Kerry was ultimately a symbol of hope, the subsequent removal of the rail line in 1960 was a symbol of despair. The return of the greenway could be another symbol of hope and real economic prosperity. It is so important to this part of the county, including places like Glenbeigh, Kells, Foilmore, Cahersiveen, Reenard, Valentia Island and the whole of south Kerry.

It is something I am deeply passionate about. The Minister will know from the debates we have had in this House how I feel about this project. It was first put in place about 130 years ago and will be here for 130 years or more in the future. It will be our grandchildren and great grandchildren who will benefit from it. It is a very important project.

I thank Deputy Griffin for his contribution and regular discussions on this issue. I am hopeful, once the legal challenges against this project end and solutions are found for the sections excluded from the planning permission granted by An Bord Pleanála, an updated application for funding will be submitted by Kerry County Council to Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. A significant portion of the original funding allocated to Kerry County Council for the project remains unclaimed and sufficient funds remain to enable it to submit an excellent request. I know the staff in Kerry County Council have been consulted on many occasions by staff in other local authorities to learn from their experience. I expect any future submission will, again, be of the highest quality. The Deputy will be glad to know that TII has started the process of determining a national cycle network that will be published late next year, which will include a number of other greenways and routes in Kerry, linking it with surrounding counties. We know of the ambition Kerry has in this regard and the progress it is making with the south Kerry greenway and the greenway from Fenit, which travels through Tralee, on to Listowel and continues to Limerick city.

Through the programme for Government and the commitments therein, as well as the national development plan, we now have the money to see these ambitious plans realised over the coming decade. It is important that we continue to press ahead with delivering high quality infrastructure that enables people to choose to cycle and walk to work, school and shops, and that can be used for leisure and tourism. This week in Glasgow, we will hopefully see the nations of the world commit to doing things better and to provide opportunities for our people to act and think differently. I hope and expect that any funding requests submitted by Kerry County Council to deliver this stunning greenway will meet the criteria set out in the public spending code and that the TII will determine it appropriate to fund these. I look forward to cycling on the greenway in the coming years, as I have done in that neck of the woods for many decades.

The point raised about this section of greenway connecting into other sections, including a Killarney to Tralee route that connects into the Listowel link, into Tarbert and on to Limerick, is important. I worked in cycling tourism for many years and brought many people into Kerry on holidays. In Germany or America, when a person is selling the merits of an area, people want to see an integrated network as part of an overall network. I refer to the networks we have in Kerry and west Cork, including the roads in the Iveragh peninsula and Ballaghbeama, in the centre of the peninsula. We do not need a greenway on some of those roads. The volume of traffic is low and local people expect to see cyclists because it is a popular area and they are curious to them. It is not the case that we must always have greenways. Anyone who knows anything about cycling knows that the Ring of Kerry main road - one can hardly call it a "main road" because it is not that wide of a road - particularly the section from Killorglin to Glenbeigh, is not comfortable. I brought thousands of people there who cycled on this route over the years and it is not a comfortable place to be. The speed of the traffic is in the region of 80 km to 100 km per hour. There is no real road margin. There are tight bridges and bends on occasion. We cannot get rid of all those features because part of the charm of the Ring of Kerry is that it is such a scenic area. That is why this route makes so much sense. It provides safe options that mirror the main road and can connect to the other greenways that we will create as part of a network. It can open up beyond Valentia, Portmagee and over the incredible road to Ballinskelligs, on which we do not need a greenway because traffic is relatively slow and the volume is low there. This section will be part of the overall network, some of which will be greenway and some not. We need to design an integrated route network for the sake of Kerry people and tourists.

The Minister has nailed it in one. This is a key component but we do not have to build greenways all over the country. There are many local tertiary roads that are underutilised at present and often looked upon as liabilities by local authorities. With minor engineering work they could be massive assets. Perhaps they could have a special designation status as a priority cycle route which would allow for the linking up of dedicated greenways. I wrote about this in 2013. I raised the south Kerry greenway in my first council motion in 2009. We are almost over the line at this stage now.

As the Minister will know, money talks and the key discussion to be had around the south Kerry greenway is to secure the funding. I am confident the remaining issues, in regard to permissions for the small number of sections we spoke about, can be overcome. In the meantime, it would be a shame if there was an unnecessary delay of the overall project, while some of the minor issues are ironed out. This is a project of national importance and it will feed into many of the aims in the programme for Government, in regard to the integrated cycle networks and in making the Wild Atlantic Way more cycling and walking friendly where possible, and all the outdoor initiatives emphasised in the programme.

Old railways, in particular, are brilliant for greenways because their gradients are suitable for cyclists of all abilities. I cycled the Waterford greenway during the summer with my family. My eight-year-old son managed to do 46 km on his bike in a single day because the gradient was amenable to people of all levels of ability. This is no different from the situation in Kerry and it will be an inclusive facility. It will be a massive game changer, but we need the money.

As I said, some of the money is already sitting in accounts waiting for the legal issues to be resolved. Some €3.46 million was allocated in April 2014 and a further €415,000 was issued in the same year for the section in Reenard. Some of that amount is in dormant accounts waiting to be used. Considering how inflation has raised significantly since then in construction, and how some of the work on the viaduct tunnel bridges would probably be more significant than on an ordinary route, one can see how it would be expensive. Transport Infrastructure Ireland has a critical role to play in this. Its designation, working with local authorities, to have the responsibility of rolling out of this national network of greenways was made quite deliberately. Transport Infrastructure Ireland is one of our best delivery agents. It tends to deliver projects on time and on budget. It has real engineering expertise and skills. I will say to TII that a requirement of good engineering is to get good value for money. The importance of that is not to undermine any one project or not to spare money on the likes of this project, which is a spectacular project that takes one's breath away. The route will look out over Kells Bay on a promontory railway line. The engineers had a hell of an imagination and nerve in 1893 when they built it. It will, therefore, require significant investment. In general, we must be careful not to over-engineer or over-spec the route, and that we get as good value for money as possible so that we can get as many kilometres done as possible, in many instances with minimal intervention and low-cost measures.

During Covid times, we saw what was achieved in Dún Laoghaire. Some might say it is different, but it is not that different. It was a section of roadway on a beautiful seafront. That was completed for a fraction of the cost that people expected because we had a local director of services who was willing to be brave, to think innovatively and to do things differently in experimental ways. I hope TII and Kerry County Council will take the same approach. We will have to spend money on the railway section because it is very special, but the intention is to complete the overall network in a way that does not cost the earth.

Departmental Licences

I want to raise the issue of what I believe is the Minister's intention to grant prospecting licences for base metals, gold and silver ores, in a significant number of townlands in Leitrim. The prospecting licences were initially given to Omagh Minerals but they expired in 2020 and new licences have been applied for by Flintridge, a new company. However, three of its four officers are former officers of Omagh Minerals.

The Minister's intention has come as a shock and a nasty surprise to the local community for a number of reasons. This community, including the farmers, tourism operators, fishermen, and across society in Leitrim and internationally, have campaigned vigorously to ensure that fracking would not be permitted.

They did so because they wanted to preserve their landscape, their clean air and water and public health. I am thankful that campaign was successful and I congratulate all those involved, including the former Deputy, Tony McLoughlin, who played an important role.

As I have said, many people are aghast at the idea that, after declaring a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019, Ireland is considering issuing prospecting licences to the mining industry. During my last term in the European Parliament, some of the most important legislation we put through related to the establishment of the circular economy. This is now on the Statute Book and Ireland has committed to establishing a circular economy. Gold mining has no place within it. In the mining industry, a large number of harmful chemicals that can negatively impact air and water quality are used. These include mercury and cyanide. It is estimated that in order to produce enough raw gold to make a single ring, 20 tonnes of rock and soil are dislodged and discarded. Many people are concerned because they have heard first-hand reports from Omagh of the lived experience of gold mining and of the negative human, societal and environmental damage it has done.

The GeoScience Regulation Office has told us that these are prospecting licences and not mining licences, and that they do not confer any right to mine. Let us look at the reality of that. Companies apply for prospecting licences based on geological information. If such a licence is given, the company involved may then invest money in prospecting and there is a significant expectation that it will apply for a mining licence. This is all the more likely because, last year, global production of gold fell by 1%. Companies are now looking at those deposits that are more difficult to extract.

I mentioned first-hand accounts from Omagh, where a mine has been in operation since the early 2000s. The area in question is significant. One site covers 71 square miles while another covers 96 square miles. There are various ponds, Kearney trenches, polishing ponds and processing plants all in a pristine environment. That is the picture painted by the people of Omagh. If the Minister ever visited the glens of north Leitrim, he would be horrified at the idea that this was even a possibility.

To suggest that prospecting licences are just that and no more is like saying that people who do a driving test and then invest in buying a car are simply doing so to see if they can pass the test. The truth is they are doing it so they can drive a car.

My Department published a notice of intention to grant two prospecting licences in north Leitrim in a local newspaper on 7 October 2021. Submissions on these applications can be made to my Department until 12 midnight on 7 November. Details are available on the Department's website. All valid submissions will be considered before a final decision is made on whether to grant the two prospecting licences in question.

It is important that we all understand the difference between a prospecting licence and a mining licence or lease and the robust standards that are in place to ensure that both distinct activities meet the highest environmental standards and that people's concerns are addressed. A prospecting licence allows the holder to prospect for specified minerals in a defined geographic area. The majority of prospecting activities carried out under a prospecting licence are temporary and involve minimal disturbance. All proposed exploration activities are the subject of environmental screening by my Department. This ensures they will not give rise to any significant adverse effects on the environment. If a prospecting licence is granted, that licence does not confer the licensee with any rights which would allow it to undertake mining and no intrusive prospecting activities such as drilling or trenching can be undertaken without the express consent of the landowner or tenant. It is also worth noting that very few prospecting licences ever lead to mining.

Mining is a very different activity from prospecting in terms of its scale and potential environmental impact and is regulated accordingly. Mining requires three additional and separate consents. It requires planning permission from the local authority. This involves a full environmental impact assessment and public consultation. To emphasise again the point that a mining authorisation does not automatically follow on from a prospecting licence, I will mention that I am aware of examples of economically viable mineral deposits being discovered only for permission to develop them to subsequently be refused by the relevant planning authority.

An integrated pollution control, IPC, licence from the Environmental Protection Agency is also required. IPC licensing aims to prevent or reduce emissions to air, water and land, to reduce waste and to make sure that energy resources are used efficiently. IPC licensing also involves a full environmental impact assessment and public consultation.

A mining lease or licence is also required. This is sought from me, as the relevant Minister. I would not consider granting a mining licence or lease until after planning permission and an IPC licence have been granted. My Department is currently finalising a draft policy statement on mineral exploration and mining by considering the submissions made as part of a public consultation that concluded on 15 October last. The Government will consider the draft policy statement early next year. The draft policy statement highlights the role of minerals in our everyday lives and the critical role they will play in our transition to net-zero emissions and carbon neutrality by 2050. The draft policy recognises that we need to repair, reuse and recycle more minerals and metals but this alone will not supply the quantity of minerals required to decarbonise our energy system through solar power, renewable wind energy and batteries. Relying solely on imported minerals risks these activities being developed in parts of the world where less stringent environmental and human rights standards apply while also risking our ability to secure the minerals needed to make the green and digital transition a reality.

A key priority in the draft policy statement is to build public understanding of, and trust in, mineral exploration and mining activities. During the course of the public consultation on the draft policy statement, the consent of communities to mining operations and the provision of information that is easily understood emerged as key issues. These issues will be taken forward by my Department with the help of an advisory group on mineral exploration and mining which will be established shortly and which will draw on as broad a range of views as possible.

I thank the Minister. This week, every single member of Leitrim County Council supported a motion asking him not to grant a prospecting licence for gold mining. That is a very strong statement. Every single councillor from all the different parties and all independent councillors asked him not to grant this prospecting licence. I mentioned fracking earlier. It is worth noting that petroleum licensing options were granted by a Fianna Fáil-Green Party government. We are lucky that the then Minister, Pat Rabbitte, refused to sign off on a prospecting licence when Fine Gael and Labour were in power in 2011. His decision provided the space for a future Government to reconsider fracking as an option, which happened. The Government in question did the right thing. I now ask the Minister to do the right thing. I do not know how familiar he is with Leitrim. Its farmers will be expected to play their role in ensuring sustainable food production and in sequestering carbon. The burden may be heavier on farmers in this area. To be honest, it beggars belief that any decision the Minister might take could open the door to mining in Leitrim's pristine landscape. He seems to be saying that he would consider granting mining licences. I am shocked by this. He gave the example of conflict minerals, which is off the wall. I listened an earlier response from the Minister in which he mentioned COP 26. He said that this was an opportunity to do things in a better way and to act and think differently. That is what I am asking him to do now. I ask him not to make the mistakes of the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. I ask him to do things in a better way and not to give permission to companies to prospect for gold in Leitrim.

I am very familiar with north Leitrim. The people and the place have a special character. I absolutely support what Tony McLoughlin did, which Deputy Harkin mentioned.

There was widespread cross-party support for the ban on fracking, which came from local communities and the Love Leitrim group. That has been significant.

There is a difference. We will need base metals in the low carbon transition we are going to make. Do we decide to import them from other parts of the world which do not have the same environmental standards and regulations? I do not think that would be the right policy. We have gone through a very open public consultation process where we were open to everyone sitting down together. How do we manage that conundrum? There are clearly local concerns. I do not think saying no to any prospecting for any minerals or base metals, including gold or silver, would be the appropriate policy approach.

The Deputy mentioned a metaphor that this is like buying a driver licence. For 50 years, people have been prospecting for gold all over our country and not once has a commercial deposit been found. We have to be careful and put this matter in perspective. There is a real difference between getting a driving licence and driving a car and 50 years of prospecting which has not resulted in a commercial find. The chances of there being such a find are so remote that we should be careful not to raise concerns that might be not be based in reality. If there is a find, it is only then that we need to consider what the licensing or other conditions should be. That would happen through three planning, licensing and ministerial departmental assessments in respect of the environmental circumstances. I do not expect that to be the reality because the experience over 50 years has been that it has not happened. I do not believe it would be right or appropriate for us to close the door completely on any prospecting for base metals in our country.

Scoileanna Lán-Ghaeilge

Lorg mé díospóireacht ar an ngéarghá atá ann chun gaelcholáistí nua a bheith lonnaithe sa chathair seo, ach go háirithe i gceantar dheisceart Bhaile Átha Cliath. Tá an t-éileamh ann cheana féin. Tá sé sin cruthaithe. Tá an Stát, toisc nach bhfuil gaelcholáistí ann, ag diúltú do pháistí a dtagann beagnach 500 dóibh in aghaidh na bliana amach as gaelscoileanna sa chuid sin den chathair nach bhfuil spás ann dóibh i ngaelcholáiste. Tá an Stát ag loiceadh ar an dualgas atá orthu gaeloideachas a sholáthar dóibh siúd. Is é sin mar atá sé faoi láthair.

Tá mé ag tabhairt aitheantais don Stát go bhfuil fás ag teacht agus aitheantas ach go háirithe do na tuismitheoirí agus na heagrais atá ag cur na ngaelscoileanna nua chun cinn. Aithnímid é sin ach nuair a thosaíonn gaelscoil nua, caithfidh daoine tosú ag pleanáil láithreach ar ghaelcholáiste. Laistigh de thamall beag, beidh fás thar cuimse ag teacht ar an líon daltaí a bheidh ag dul chuig na gaelscoileanna sna ceantair seo. Faoi láthair, tagann 400 duine as rang 6 gach uile bhliain. Tá sé sin chun fáis laistigh de chúpla bliain go dtí 600. Is iad sin na pleananna atá ann ó thaobh na ngaelscoileanna de; na cinn atá ag méadú agus roinnt cinn nua.

Gan gaelcholáiste nua, beidh an folúntas nó an bhearna idir an t-éileamh agus an spás sna gaelcholáistí ag fás dá réir. Is é sin an fáth go bhfuil mé ag impí ar an Stát seasamh isteach anseo agus déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil cinn ann. Tá na feachtais, na príomhoidí agus na tuismitheoirí tar éis a aithint cá háit ar chóir go mbeidís sin má tá tú ag déileáil leis an bhfás atá ag teacht ó thaobh na ngaelscoileanna de. Is é ceann de na suíomhanna sin a mbeifeá ag smaoineamh air agus a bhfuil talamh le feiceáil, mar go mbíonn sé deacair uaireanta, ná ceantar cosúil le Coill na Silíní.

Chomh maith leis sin, clúdaím mo cheantar féin, a bhfuil an chuid is mó de lasmuigh den cheantar, i mBaile Átha Cliath 10 agus 12. Tá feachtas agus éileamh ansin ar ghaelscoileanna. Níl aon cheann i mBaile Átha Cliath 10 ná 12 agus tá feachtas ann dóibh sin. Bheadh gaelcholáiste nua ag teastáil chun freastal ar an soláthar a bheadh ag teastáil dóibh sin. Tá an Stát taobh thiar sa phleanáil seo. Gan é sin, tá sé ag diúltú do chearta daltaí scolaíocht a bheith acu i nGaeilge ag leibhéal meánscoile.

Chomh maith leis sin, níl mé ag tabhairt san áireamh an méid páistí a théann ó scoileanna Béarla chuig gaelcholáistí agus atá ag lorg é sin. Nuair a bhí mise ar scoil, ní raibh ach dhá ghaelcholáiste sa cheantar, Coláiste Íosagáin do na cailíní agus Coláiste Eoin dúinn féin atá ar an suíomh ceannann céanna. Tá siad fós ann agus tar éis fáis. Nuair a d’fhreastail mise, ba é sin an méid a bhí ann. Nuair a d’fhreastail mé ar bhunscoil ar dtús, ní raibh ach Gaelscoil amháin sa cheantar sin. Tá aitheantas ag dul go bhfuil fás tar éis tarlú ach tá an chuid is mó de sin ag dul do na tuismitheoirí, múinteoirí agus príomhoidí.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as an ábhar seo a ardú. Tugann sé deis dom an seasamh maidir le háiteanna iar-bhunscoile trí mheán na Gaeilge i mBaile Átha Cliath a leagan amach don Teach. Úsáidfidh mé idir Ghaeilge agus Bhéarla sa ráiteas seo. Chun pleanáil a dhéanamh don soláthar scoile, agus anailís a dhéanamh ar na sonraí ábhartha, déanann mo Roinn an tír a roinnt i 314 limistéar pleanála scoile. Úsáidtear córas GIS le sonraí ó raon leathan foinsí le fáil amach cá dtiocfaidh an brú ar áiteanna scoile ar fud na tíre agus cá mbeidh gá le cóiríocht bhreise scoile ag leibhéal na bunscoile agus na hiar-bhunscoile.

Nuair a léiríonn na sonraí go bhfuil gá le soláthar breise ag leibhéal na bunscoile nó na hiar-bhunscoile, braitheann an soláthar breise sin ar na cúinsí áirithe a bhaineann le gach cás ar leith agus féadfar í a sholáthar trí na modhanna seo a leanas: úsáid a bhaint as acmhainn atá ann cheana i scoil nó scoileanna; acmhainn scoile nó scoileanna a leathnú agus scoil nó scoileanna nua a sholáthar. Déantar próiseas pátrúnachta a reáchtáil nuair a chinntear, bunaithe ar anailís agus ar fhianaise, go bhfuil gá le scoil nua. Bíonn an próiseas pátrúnachta seo oscailte do gach comhlacht pátrúin agus do phátrúin nua.

Rinne mo Roinn an próiseas pátrúnachta ar líne a fhorbairt chun faisnéis chruinn a sholáthar do thuismitheoirí a dtabharfaidh deis dóibh rogha eolach a dhéanamh maidir le pátrúnacht agus a rogha teanga teagaisc. Is é sin Gaeilge nó Béarla, do na scoileanna nua.

Parental preferences, as well as other considerations, such as the extent of diversity of provision in an area, including Irish-medium provision, are key to the decision-making process and whether a post-primary school would take the form of an Irish-medium Gaelcholáiste or whether that school, if English-medium, would include an Irish-medium unit or aonad.

Most new post-primary schools must have a student enrolment capacity of between 600 and 1,000 students. A lower threshold of 400 students may apply to Gaelcholáistí, having regard to the alternative of establishing an aonad within the school. Since April 2018, the Government has announced plans for the establishment of 47 new schools from 2019. This includes four new post-primary schools to serve the Dublin city-south Dublin area, two of which have been established as English-medium schools following a patronage process. Síltear go bhfuil dóthain áiteanna scoile sa ghearrthéarma ag na gaelcholáistí atá sa cheantar chun freastal ar an éileamh a tugadh faoi deara mar chuid de na próisis phátrúnachta a tharla le déanaí.

Cuirtear san áireamh freisin líon na ngaelscoileanna nua a osclaíodh le blianta beaga anuas nó atá beartaithe. Ach tá an cás á choinneáil faoi athbhreithniú gníomhach ag mo Roinn de réir mar a fhásann na scoileanna seo agus de réir mar a thagann méadú ar an líon daltaí rang 6 i ngaelscoileanna.

In 2014, two new Gaelcholáistí were established in Dublin city, namely, Gaelcholáiste an Phiarsaigh, in the Ballinteer-Stepaside area, and Coláiste Ghlór na Mara, in Balbriggan. The year of establishment, patronage model and language of instruction have yet to be determined for the new post-primary schools announced to serve the following school planning areas in south Dublin: Dublin 2-Dublin 4 and Sallynoggin-Killiney-Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown-Cherrywood.

Measaim nach dtuigeann an Roinn na figiúirí. Má tá 391 dalta ag críochnú i rang 6 gach uile bhliain agus nach bhfuil ach 150 spás i ngaelcholáistí sa cheantar, tá fadhb bhunúsach ann. Tá 500 dalta a fhreastalaíonn ar ghaelscoileanna nach bhfuil áit ann dóibh i ngaelcholáistí. Mar a dúirt mé, ní thógann sé sin san áireamh iad siúd a théann ar scoileanna Béarla agus atá ag iarraidh dul chuig na Gaelcholáistí chomh maith. Tá an Stát ag loiceadh ar chearta na ndaltaí sin agus a dtuismitheoirí. Mar a dúirt mé, beidh fás air. Tá a fhios againn an fás toisc go bhfuil sé luaite ansin. Luaigh an tAire na critéir atá ann as Béarla. Dúirt sí "most new post-primary schools must have a student enrolment capacity of between 600 and 1,000 students". Luíonn an figiúr atá á luadh agam leis sin. Ní gá " a lower threshold of 400 students may apply to Gaelcholáistí". Tá an "threshold" ann cheana féin. Tá na daltaí ann cheana féin. Tá sé cruthaithe le tamall de bhlianta. Ní leor féachaint air seo amach anseo. Tá sé ag tarlú anois agus tá sé cruthaithe ag na scoileanna sin agus na daltaí atá ag freastal ar bhunscoileanna trí Ghaeilge sna Gaelscoileanna sa cheantar cheana féin.

Tuigim go bhfuil an-spéis ag an Teachta san ábhar seo. Tá mo Roinn ag déanamh gach iarracht Gaelscoileanna agus Gaelcholáistí ach go háirithe a chur chun cinn. Faoi mar a dúirt mé cheana, new schools are established by the Department on the basis of identified demographic demand in an area and only after consideration of the capacity of existing schools to absorb the expected school place demand. As already stated in the context of the development of schools, two new Gaelcholáistí were established in Dublin city in 2014, namely, Gaelcholáiste an Phiarsaigh, in the Ballinteer-Stepaside area, and Coláiste Ghlór na Mara, in Balbriggan. The year of establishment, patronage model and language of instruction have yet to be determined for the new post-primary schools announced to serve the following school planning areas: Dublin 2-Dublin 4 and Sallynoggin-Killiney-Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown-Cherrywood. Equally, leanfaidh mo Roinn ag obair chun a chinntiú go bhfuil soláthar scoile an-mhaith ag cathair Bhaile Átha Cliath chun freastal ar an éileamh ar áiteanna scoileanna. Chomh maith leis sin, coimeádfar an riachtanas i mBaile Átha Cliath faoi athbhreithniú mar a tharlaíonn le gach réigiún pleanála scoile eile. Ina theannta sin, leanfaidh mo Roinn i dteagmháil le Comhairle Cathrach Bhaile Átha Cliath maidir le hathbhreithniú ar phlean forbartha na cathrach chun aon riachtanais chóiríochta scoile fadtéarmacha a aithint. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Teachta as ucht na ceiste seo a chur os mo chomhair. Tá súil agam go bhfeiceann sé go bhfuilimid gnóthach sa Roinn ó thaobh na Gaeilge de.

Insurance Industry

Usually when we talk about insurance in this Chamber, it is in the context of the escalating cost. During questions to the Tánaiste earlier, I said that where the cost of injury claims comes down, the cost of insurance should come down correspondingly, and we had a discussion on that.

This matter, however, is about certain sectors being unable to get any insurance cover. We have seen this creep into the sporting activity sector in recent months, with water sport activities, activity parks and water parks failing to get insurance. One such business in Dromineer, in my county, had to close because of a lack of insurance. Now we have been told ice rinks for the winter period will not get insurance. We see an increasing number of sporting activities failing to get insurance cover, irrespective of the cost.

Now we see this stretching into the equestrian sector. Last weekend, two point-to-point events had to be cancelled because of a lack of insurance. As for the equestrian and hunting sectors, we have 100 packs in this country. We had only one insurance provider in this area but it has now withdrawn. If insurance for hunting packs comes to an end, with different packs at different stages, those hunts will not be able to engage in any activity. Consequently, the organisers of point-to-point events, which operate under the same umbrella, will not be able to operate either. Aside from the recreational aspect of these sports, they are hugely important businesses. They are the cornerstone of our national hunt industry and extremely important financially and to rural Ireland.

We have had the disruption of Covid, which put national hunt breeding under extreme pressure, and we had point-to-point racing cancelled for a number of months. Thankfully, we got the latter resumed, but a second winter of disruption to our activities would be extremely damaging economically. I am talking about the shop window where our young horses are shown and able to be sold, whether to buyers here at home or to the UK or further afield. A second winter of disruption would impact on the sales of younger horses all through the year. It is imperative therefore that the Government comes up with a solution to this crisis - and a crisis it is. As I said, we have often been in this Chamber arguing about the cost of insurance, but this is a completely different aspect of various sectors of sporting activity being unable to activate insurance at any price.

A substantial claim was awarded on the hunting fields in recent months, and that is the reason being put forward for the insurer leaving the market. That accident happened in my county. The rider involved was severely injured and I understand a substantial payout was received. This is a man with a young family and he will have a lot of costs for the rest of his life. We cannot, however, have a situation in which vital sectors, whether a business involving water activities or any other recreational activity, will be left without insurance cover. As I said, the equestrian industry is massively important to all parts of the country. We just have to come up with a solution to this. We cannot just have insurance companies cherry-picking what they will insure. I am not talking about insurance at any cost because, obviously, no business can afford that. Surely, though, we could have a regulator that would ensure reasonable costs in respect of claims paid out over a number of years and ensure that insurance companies, in order to be allowed to operate in this country, would be forced to give quotes at reasonable costs to all sectors.

I acknowledge the issue raised by Deputy Cahill regarding insurance cover for rural pursuits. Ireland's unique natural amenities not only play a key role from an economic perspective, more importantly, they also serve to enrich the quality of life in communities across the country. Accordingly, I do not take the challenges of both the accessibility and affordability of insurance for outdoor pursuits lightly. The case the Deputy outlines is really about lack of access. The issue of affordability has not featured in the debate because this is an issue of availability of insurance.

It is important I make the point that there is no single policy or legislative initiative which the Government can take to persuade insurers to provide cover for any particular sector or industry.

Moreover, neither the Government nor the Central Bank can interfere in the provision or pricing of insurance products, nor do we have the power to direct insurance companies to provide cover to specific businesses or individuals. This legal position is reinforced by the EU solvency directive framework, which is directly on this issue. The only situation in Ireland that I can think of where people have a legal obligation to get insurance is motor insurance in the private motor sector and in those cases, there is a process which refers to the declined cases that have to be dealt with. A person must be given a quote, albeit the price will depend on the risk involved. That is the only element in Irish society where the industry can be forced to provide insurance, and that is in the motor insurance area.

Notwithstanding this, we continue to prioritise insurance reform and work is progressing right across Departments on the timely implementation of all the actions outlined in the action plan for insurance reform. Deputies may be aware that the first action plan implementation report was published in July and it shows that significant progress has been made, with 34 of the 66 actions contained therein now completed, with work also under way on the remainder.

As part of my intensive stakeholder engagement on the reform agenda, I have met many groups to discuss the difficulties in obtaining insurance. Accordingly, I am aware of the exit of a number of UK leisure insurers from the Irish market in recent years. This may affect the areas referred to by the Deputy, be it ice rinks or some water sports. The Deputy also mentioned hunting and point-to-point races, which are a separate issue. The new personal injuries guidelines were a key element of our action plan that were delivered ahead of schedule. I believe that when fully implemented across all of the cases encompassed by them, it will lead to a reduction in the cost of claims. In its own right, this will help to attract companies back into the sector to provide policies, where they have been slow to do so at the moment. Early indications are that reductions as a result of this have resulted in a 40% reduction in the cost of those claims, which is highly significant.

It is disappointing to hear that difficulties in obtaining insurance cover is affecting rural pursuits. It was brought to my personal attention last week with one of the major brokers in the area, who mentioned it to the Department a few days earlier. The issue has been brought to my attention only in recent days. I assure the House that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and I will continue to hold insurers to account on previous commitments they have made in this area. A key element will be bringing in the law of occupiers' liability and duty of care. The Minister for Justice is advancing this and it will come before the House shortly.

I recognise the issues and I want to listen further to the particular cases the Deputy has referred to. I will comment on those during my next opportunity in a few moments.

While I appreciate the Minister of State's answer, we do not have weeks to sort out this issue. It needs to be sorted out immediately. A number of years ago there was a similar issue with access to rural Ireland, whereby landowners were extremely concerned about their liability when people were using their land for recreational purposes. There was a satisfactory solution for that, namely, liability was taken away from the landowner. We need something similar in this case. I suggest that the notion of a waiver by participants in activities is examined by the Government and if a person signs the waiver of any liability, that this would be taken on board by the insurance company to absolve them of any liability to a claim when an adult is participating in an activity. We should see if this idea can be advanced immediately, that is, if a participant signs a waiver, this would take away any potential liability that may be incurred.

Businesses are closing because of lack of insurance but now this hugely important industry for rural Ireland is under immediate threat. We must get a solution to this. I accept the Minister of State's point that we cannot force insurance companies to quote but we must build an environment immediately that will make it economically attractive for insurance companies to quote at a reasonable cost. We cannot just stand idly by and allow a cornerstone industry in rural Ireland to collapse for the lack of insurance cover. We will be failing in our responsibilities as legislators in the Dáil if we allow this to happen. We have a responsibility to these industries, whether it is water activities or other recreational activities and sports that are now failing to get insurance, or the equestrian centres that are a huge cornerstone industry in every county in the country and all across rural Ireland. A huge number of people are employed in this industry, be it in the livery for horses, breeding horses or training horses. This is a hugely important industry and we cannot abdicate our responsibility in this regard. We are legislators and we must ensure that insurance cover is available to all sectors to allow them to continue their businesses.

I thank Deputy Cahill for highlighting this acute issue that has only come to our attention in the last number of weeks. On this exact point, I received an email just yesterday from one of the county farmers' hunts expressing their anger and frustration at what has happened in this area. In the email I received, they highlighted that the loss of Ireland's hunting community would have dire consequences for our sport horse industry and point-to-point racing and that the lifeblood of our racing industry would be immediately devastated. I understand the seriousness and that it is not just an issue of recreational activities. As part of the core industry it affects rural Ireland.

I will be meeting the Alliance for Insurance Reform this week. They have established a list of areas where there are particular problems. I want to go through these on a case-by-case basis in relation to the different industries, some of which we have touched on here today, including play centres and outdoor play areas, as well as rural pursuits. We will talk to brokers to see where they can work collectively as groups. Definitely, Deputy Cahill has mentioned what is now a pinch point. I also will meet Insurance Ireland and the insurance companies this month. I will ask each of them to see how it can help collectively in this area.

Reference was made to strengthening the waiver system. I agree completely with Deputy in this regard. This will tie into the duty of care. That system is in place in many places where a person will enter and sign a form to say that he or she is entering at his or her own risk and understands the situation. Unfortunately, in the past when the cases have gone to court the judges have taken a lenient approach and often sided with the person who had the injury, notwithstanding that the person had signed a form, because he or she said that there were some issues in the area they had not known about when they signed the form. The strengthening of a waiver and making it legally binding is definitely to be included in the forthcoming legislation from the Minister for Justice.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.57 p.m. until 9.12 a.m on Wednesday, 3 November 2021.