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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 8 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 3

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

An Garda Síochána

Now that Covid restrictions have eased, I have been happy to meet with groups around County Carlow. An issue that has come up often is the lack of gardaí in communities. I want to discuss with the Minister the number of community gardaí in Carlow and Kilkenny because there certainly are concerns that there are not enough of them. I have written to the Garda Commissioner to ask about recruitment in my constituency. I am very concerned about this since we are now centralised, with Carlow seeming to be the poor relation in the arrangement.

Rural crime has affected us all, directly or indirectly, and we cannot continue to let it happen. People feel they are not being heard on this issue. I attend the meetings of my local joint policing committee every three or four months, which are really helpful. I compliment the members of An Garda Síochána in Carlow on the excellent job they are doing, but they are very short-staffed. The assignment of gardaí to communities is the main issue that is raised at every meeting of the joint policing committee. For example, the Garda station in Leighlinbridge was closed in 2013 and, at around the same time, the post office and houses were burgled and machinery and tools were stolen. A local Garda station is vital for small rural villages and townlands.

Since the Government has promised to reopen the station, I am looking for the date on which the Department of Justice will honour its commitment in this regard. The reopening is urgent and I am receiving calls to this effect. I would like to see an end to false hope and to see genuine action taken. I have tabled numerous parliamentary questions on this. I have raised it as a Topical Issue many times and have spoken at length about it. Carlow needs to be made a priority in Dublin and I intend to make my voice heard on this.

I want to ask about Text Alert. Text alerts are vital in the community but cost money, as the Minister of State knows. We need some kind of funding stream. What sort of funding have we available now for communities to help them with text alerts? They are so valuable, particularly to elderly residents in rural areas. I know this from talking to people. They talk about the cost of living. Services such as Text Alert will be cut if people cannot afford them. I am aware that there was a LEADER scheme. Could we have a scheme that would ensure that text alerts continue and that there is some funding for people?

On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As she will be aware, under section 26 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, as amended, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the management and administration of Garda business, which encompasses all operational policing matters, including the allocation of resources. The Minister for Justice has no statutory role in regard to these operational policing matters.

I am aware that the Government is committed to supporting a strong and visible police presence throughout the country to detect and prevent crime and provide reassurance to local communities across the country.

To date, the official categorisation of a community garda has simply referred to those who are exclusively assigned to building relationships with local communities and civil society, including through giving talks to schools and community groups. It is important to note, however, that community policing is at the heart of An Garda Síochána and that all gardaí have a role to play in community policing in the course of carrying out their duties. Indeed, this is fundamental to the new Garda operating model recommended by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and currently being rolled out under A Policing Service for Our Future, the Government's implementation plan for the commission's recommendations.

An unprecedented allocation in excess of €2 billion was provided in budget 2022 for An Garda Síochána. It includes funding for the recruitment of up to 800 additional Garda members and 400 Garda staff. Many of the Garda members to be recruited will be drawn from the Garda recruitment competition that opened just last month. I am happy to note on behalf of the Minister that the number of applications received thus far from those interested in a career in An Garda Síochána is high.

I am informed that as of 31 January 2022, the latest date when figures were available, 97 community gardaí were assigned to the Kilkenny-Carlow division. This represents an increase of over 14% since December 2017, when there were 85 community gardaí assigned to the division. This allocation comprises 14 sergeants and 83 gardaí.

While the Deputy will appreciate that the allocation of resources is an operational matter for the Commissioner, I am assured that the situation remains closely monitored by the Garda senior leadership team, particularly in view of commitments to the continued roll-out of the operating model of policing at divisional level to ensure optimum use of all Garda resources in providing the best possible Garda service to the community.

I can reassure the Deputy that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, will continue to engage closely with the Garda Commissioner in regard to all community safety issues in the context of prioritising the delivery of the suite of community safety commitments contained in the programme for Government and the justice plan.

I thank the Minister of State. It is great to welcome the recruitment of 800 gardaí and staff members. The Minister of State said 97 community gardaí were assigned to the Kilkenny–Carlow division but did not actually tell me how many gardaí are in Carlow. Although Carlow is smaller than Kilkenny, I am a Deputy for Carlow-Kilkenny and believe it is important that I get the figures for Carlow. It is good to see the increase but it is important that Carlow is never left behind. I always feel it is because it is a smaller county. Therefore, I ask for the figures for it.

I compliment the gardaí I know in Carlow and Kilkenny. They do an excellent job but it is important to see more community gardaí. This is what we have always wanted in rural areas such as County Carlow. It gives a sense of security, particularly for elderly people. It is important that we talk about Text Alert. I attended a Text Alert meeting recently and it was lovely to see the big crowd at it. It was like a little community event, but there is now concern over paying money towards Text Alert. We need to consider that and encourage people to opt for Text Alert more, particularly in rural areas. There should be funding. In this regard, we need to determine which is the relevant Department.

While it is good that there is recruitment of new gardaí, which I welcome, the Minister of State must make sure that smaller counties such as Carlow are not left behind. I ask that he send me the figures for Carlow Garda station. Well done to everyone involved. For nearly two years, Covid has not been easy on anyone. Gardaí have played a huge part in calling to people and checking on people. We have to recognise their work but we need to ensure we have enough gardaí in the community.

I thank the Deputy again for raising the issue. I will convey her comments to the Minister. It is important to restate the key point I made, that is, that local and senior Garda management are consulted during the allocation of personnel. They are responsible for the specific deployment or assignment of duties undertaken at divisional level.

With regard to Text Alert, I have heard what the Deputy has said. The budget for 2022 provided for the establishment of the new community safety innovation fund, but I will convey the Deputy's comments on Text Alert to the Minister.

Scoileanna Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta

Baineann mo cheist le Scoil Náisiúnta Bhríde i Leitir Calaidh i gCeantar na nOileán. Chualamar trí na meáin chumarsáide go raibh an scoil ag dúnadh. Tá cathaoirleach an bhoird agus bainistíocht na scoile ag cur in iúl go mbeidh an scoil ag dúnadh ag deireadh na scoilbhliana seo. Chuir sé iontas orainne go léir, go háirithe na tuismitheoirí agus muintir an cheantair. Tuigim go bhfuil an figiúr sa scoil íseal ó thaobh na ndaltaí de ach tá an chosúlacht ar an scéal gur tháinig an cinneadh aniar aduaidh ar na daoine sa cheantar agus, mar a dúirt mé, ar na tuismitheoirí. I dtús báire táim ag iarraidh aird na Roinne a tharraingt ar an bhfógra seo go bhfuil an scoil ag dúnadh. Chomh maith leis sin, ba mhaith liom soiléiriú an raibh an Roinn ar an eolas go raibh an scoil seo le dúnadh. An raibh teagmháil idir lucht bainistíochta na scoile agus an Roinn?

The Topical Issue I have raised is self-evident. There has been an announcement that Scoil Náisiúnta Bhríde, Leitir Calaidh, Ceantar na nOileán, is closing. The announcement was made by an email to the parents, and I heard it on the radio. It surprised all of us, not least the parents of the pupils in the school and the people in the area. The school has fought many battles and has managed to stay open. It is in the heart of the Gaeltacht. Already, two other schools have closed in the area. I have brought in the relevant policy, Polasaí don Oideachas Gaeltachta 2017–2022, which was launched with great fanfare in 2016. One of the best things to come out of any Government, as I said at the time, was the very positive policy whereby schools in the Gaeltacht could do everything in Irish and get special recognition for that. There was a process and steps, and there was to be extra help.

That policy was in recognition of the urgent need to have such a policy for the Gaeltacht areas. There is a school that is at the heart of the community, as the Minister of State knows well from his own work i gcroílár na Gaeltachta agus an phobail. Now there is an announcement that it is to close. Was the Department aware of this? Was it made aware of this? If so, when and how? What steps is the Government taking in relation to the matter? Has the Department been in touch with the school or the board of management? I understand the permission of the Department is necessary when a school is going to close, or certainly, there has to be some interaction between the school and the Department. I am seeking clarification on the matter.

I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister for Education. I thank Deputy Connolly for raising the matter. It provides an opportunity to clarify the current position in relation to Scoil Náisiúnta Bhríde.

As the Deputy is aware, Scoil Náisiúnta Bhríde is an all-Irish co-educational primary school with a Catholic ethos. The current staffing is a principal, one special education teacher post and one part-time special education teaching post, with an enrolment of eight pupils in September 2021. The programme for Government contains a commitment to continue to recognise the importance of small schools. Small schools are highly valued in their communities in that they provide a vital link to local heritage and history, help sustain rural populations and often act as a link for sports and social activities. Coming from a rural background, the Minister is very much aware of the huge importance of small schools to communities right across Ireland. She has asked her Department to work with education partners to examine ways to support such schools in their communities and to ensure a more sustainable future for them. In general, small schools are considered to be schools with four teachers or less. A number of positive measures have been implemented to support small schools, including an improvement of one point in the appointment threshold and a reduction in the number of students required to retain a teacher, which was introduced in September 2021.

In respect of school closures or amalgamations, the decision-making authority belongs to the patron of the school. Any proposal to close or amalgamate a school must involve consultation with all of the relevant stakeholders - parents, teachers, students and local communities - and follow decisions taken at local level. Such proposals must then be agreed with the Department. The Department has no record of a formal request to approve the closure of Scoil Náisiúnta Bhríde. Furthermore, the Department has been given to understand that the patron has not made any decision regarding the closure of the school. While there has been no contact between the school authority and the Department regarding the closure of the school, the Department has received an inquiry from the school authority regarding the process for school amalgamations. I can also confirm that Scoil Náisiúnta Bhríde retains its status with the Department and is participating in the Gaeltacht school recognition scheme, which provides all schools in Gaeltacht language planning areas with the opportunity to achieve recognition as Gaeltacht schools through the implementation of language-based criteria.

I thank the Minister of State for the clarity of his response. I note that the Department has no record of a formal request to approve the closure of the school. That begs the question of whether an informal request was made. What contact was there between the Department and the school? Do I take it at face value that there was absolutely no contact in relation to a request to approve the closure of the school, and that permission must be granted by the Department, even though the Department is not running the school?

The Minister of State confirmed that the Department received an inquiry from the school authority regarding the process for school amalgamations. When was that inquiry received? The fact that this school is in the process of getting recognition within the policy, which is excellent, is most important. I also stress the importance of the school to the area, which I will not repeat in my limited time.

I must comment on the strangeness of the fact that an announcement was made on the airwaves and we became aware of the issue that way. Subsequently, there was a public meeting because of the sense of outrage in the community that the school was being closed in this manner. Yet, the Department was unaware of it, obviously through no fault of its own. The Minister of State mentioned official contact and inquiries. When was the Department put on notice that this school intended to make an announcement that it was closing? If the Department was not aware of it and permission has to be granted, what is the Department's view of a school board of management behaving in such a manner and making an announcement about an all-Irish school that is in the process of seeking recognition and is so vital to the community?

The Minister of State has started off well. I acknowledge that he has given me a clear answer. Sometimes we do not get clear answers. I ask him to go into the finer details. What is the Department's next step in relation to this school, given the importance of it to the area?

I thank the Deputy. Obviously, as I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education, I will ensure that the Minister is made aware of the questions the Deputy has raised. To reiterate the key point, as indicated, the decision-making authority for school closures or amalgamations is the school patron. No request for the approval of the closure of Scoil Náisiúnta Bhríde has been received by the Department. That is all I can clarify for the Deputy regarding the matter. The additional points raised by the Deputy will be brought to the attention of the Minister.

Mental Health Services

The Keltoi rehabilitation unit was closed in March 2020. We were promised at the time that it was a temporary closure due to Covid-19. It is still closed today. Why? There are serious issues with addressing dual diagnosis in this State. Addiction is often caused by trauma, but so too are serious mental health difficulties. When they are presented together, people often have nowhere to turn. Keltoi is a one-of-a-kind facility that has helped people in these situations. It must be reopened now. There were warnings that the closure of the unit would have profound consequences. Has the Minister of State reviewed the impacts of this closure?

There were established care pathways and clear benefits from the involvement of the unit in these pathways. We should be opening more units like Keltoi. We need more trauma centre facilities that provide wraparound services and have high success rates. We need more facilities that are run by the State. That is what Deputy Ward and I should be asking for today. Instead, once again, we are forced to raise the dire need to reopen the Keltoi unit, the only residential facility in the State.

The Keltoi staff have been redeployed, many to roles where they are no longer required. They are ready to work and want to return to work. The services that engage with Keltoi want the unit to reopen. What is the obstacle to this issue being resolved? Why can it not be sorted? People are crying out for help, especially those with addiction and mental health issues. The Government is failing them as a result of the continued closure of the Keltoi unit. When will it be reopened?

I thank the Minister of State for staying until 11 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. It is much appreciated. I am going to bring him on a bit of a journey. I worked in front-line addiction services for a number of years prior to becoming involved in politics. I am going to talk about the case of a young mother who sought help for chronic addiction, but it could be anybody. She entered the service I was working in and was immediately provided with key working. She was then given counselling and a care plan was developed for her. Part of that care plan was to get her ready for a drug detox in the Cuan Dara centre in Cherry Orchard. The patient went to Cuan Dara and completed the detox. She was then ready to go from Cuan Dara to Keltoi, which was the natural continuing care pathway at the time.

She went from Keltoi into supported housing and then into aftercare with Keltoi, which continued to support her. From the supported housing, she went back into her community, managed to get her children back in her life and became a very productive member of society. Without Keltoi, however, and that continuum of care, that mother would never have got her children back and may never have got back into the community or become a productive member of society.

Keltoi works with complex people who have a significant amount of trauma and may use drugs to self-medicate and to calm their anxious inner world. It also helps people with dual diagnosis. The State is absolutely lacking in services for those with dual diagnosis. A service such as that provided by Keltoi is not available anywhere else in the HSE. Keltoi has been closed for two years this month and for those two years there has been a gap in the services of the HSE for people looking for rehabilitation and treatment for drug addiction. We need to get this service open.

I thank Deputies Gould and Ward for raising this issue. I welcome the opportunity to inform the House on the current position relating to the continued closure of the Keltoi rehabilitation unit. I thank the Deputies for outlining their journey in terms of their work on front-line addiction services and the care plan that was provided.

From the outset of the pandemic, the Government identified drug treatment and addiction services as essential services. I acknowledge the leadership and commitment of addiction services, including the HSE, community-based services and voluntary service providers, in ensuring their services operated safely during the pandemic. There were many innovations in the delivery of drug and alcohol services during Covid-19, especially the use of online services. The additional resources I am providing for community-based drug and alcohol services and HSE addiction services in 2022 will consolidate these gains. The Deputies outlined the difficulties relating to dual diagnosis. We are moving in a direction to try to deal with dual diagnosis.

I am aware of the constraints faced by residential drug and alcohol treatment services during Covid-19 due to social distancing and other public health measures. I support the efforts of the HSE and voluntary service providers to restore services to pre-Covid-19 levels. I have provided an additional €3.3 million to expand capacity in residential treatment services. In total, this funding will provide an additional 475 treatment episodes in a full year.

As the Deputies are aware, the Keltoi facility was identified for use as an isolation facility for marginalised and vulnerable people during Covid-19 in CHO 9. This group of service users were not able to isolate in their own accommodation on public health grounds as they required specific individual care plans. It is important to state there are significant numbers of homeless and addiction service users in this area, particularly in Dublin north city and county. The area also has a high migrant health population living in overcrowded and quarantine accommodation. The HSE has advised there are still significant ongoing demands for isolation in this facility and that it will be maintained as a Covid isolation facility for as long as required. I welcome the assurance from the HSE. The continued use of the facility as a Covid-19 response is being reviewed monthly in line with national guidance.

I recognise it is vital that individuals receiving rehabilitation services from Keltoi are supported to continue their recovery path. I welcome the fact that Keltoi counselling staff in the HSE Stanhope Centre are continuing to provide appropriate support services to clients under the Keltoi aftercare programme. I am happy to advise the House that the HSE remains committed to enhancing residential addiction services in this area, including the reopening of the Keltoi facility once it is no longer required as part of the Covid-19 response. I acknowledge the challenges faced by service providers during Covid-19 and will continue to support them to fully resume services. I am pleased to inform the House that the Department of Health has provided an additional budget allocation of €10 million in 2022 to maintain public health measures for people who are homeless and to consolidate improvements in healthcare delivery.

To be honest, I am shocked and flabbergasted by the comments of the Minister of State. Keltoi worked with people in addiction or with serious and complex mental health issues. He has come in here two years after its closure to tell us it will remain closed. That is not good enough. These are people who have serious issues. Is the Department of Health or the HSE using Covid-19 as a way of closing down Keltoi? If that is what is being done, it is not acceptable and Sinn Féin will certainly oppose it. We should be seeking to provide more services such as Keltoi.

To give the Minister of State a flavour of the situation, the nephew of a good friend of mine named Vincent died by suicide today. He is the sixth person to die by suicide in my community in the past four weeks. He and his family had certain issues. He had two brothers who died in a similar way. There are families that need support. There are families, individuals and communities that are being traumatised. We need more facilities such as Keltoi but the answer of the Minister of State is to close the only such facility we have.

As I stated, the continuum of care is so important. If there are gaps in services, vulnerable people will fall through those gaps. One of the best decisions the HSE made several years ago was to make Cuan Dara to Keltoi a door-to-door service. Before that, people leaving the detox centre at Cuan Dara may have had to wait six or eight weeks before getting into Keltoi. The HSE closed that gap because, in the gap, people died. People left the Cuan Dara detox centre after doing a detox and may have started using drugs again because they did not have a continuum of care, but did so at the levels they were using before detox. Having been through detox, their tolerance levels were not as high and many people died as a result of overdose. It is so important to get this facility back open. I do not say it lightly but it is a matter of life and death. It is a big gap in the services that are available. I still do not understand why Keltoi, rather than another facility, was chosen to house marginalised people with Covid.

I again thank the Deputies. I acknowledge there are significant and specific challenges facing the homeless and addiction service users in CHO 9, in addition to the migrant health population living in overcrowded accommodation and quarantine accommodation there. These cohorts require individualised supports to be put in place if they are Covid positive as they cannot isolate in their existing accommodation on public health grounds.

That is a cop-out.

I am satisfied that demand for the Keltoi unit to be maintained as a Covid isolation facility is significant and ongoing and I am committed to ensuring the vulnerable population in Dublin north city and county are provided for. It is essential that the HSE CHO 9 public health department continues to review the use of Keltoi as an isolation facility on a monthly basis to ensure normal services can be resumed as soon as possible. I recognise the importance and value of the Keltoi unit to the community in CHO 9 and my Department and the HSE remain committed to enhancing the residential addiction services in the area, including the reopening of the Keltoi facility once it is no longer required as part of the Covid-19 response. I assure the House that I have been advised by the HSE that Keltoi counselling staff based in the HSE Stanhope Centre are continuing to provide appropriate support services to clients under the Keltoi aftercare programme.

That is not residential.

This is the closure of a facility by the back door using the cover of Covid. It is scandalous.

Agriculture Industry

I know the Minister of the State had a busy schedule today in Cork. I thank him for coming in at such a late hour to deal with this extremely important issue.

It concerns the challenges we face as a result of the war in Ukraine. As the Minister of State is aware, Ukraine produces 17% of the global supply of grain. If one looks at both Russia and Ukraine, they account for 30% of all exports in the global market. Some 42 million tonnes of grain were produced in Ukraine in 2021.

We have 272,000 ha which are used for cereal growing in this country. In 2012, it was 314,500 ha. There has been a substantial reduction over the past number of years. What action does the Department intend to take to encourage the farmers of this country to increase the acreage for cereal growing this year? We have a very short timeframe of just four weeks in real terms. I know that there are challenges in the supply of seed and fertiliser. Earlier, I saw a letter to distributors from a major importer outlining that it cannot guarantee supply of fertiliser. This is a very worrying issue and is something that we need to face up to.

This does not relate solely to the supply of grain for the farmers who have dairy and beef herds; it also relates to the supply of grain and wheat for food in this country. We need to have food security and I ask the Minister of State to respond on this issue at this important time?

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Ceann Comhairle for including this important matter for discussion. The scale and horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is unimaginable. The conflict will have implications for years to come. Right now, one of these issues is the impact on global food supplies, especially in the context of grain. I commend the Minister of State on his actions to practically address the issue by encouraging farmers to grow grain but we are eager to hear how that will work. Like Deputy Burke, I mention the issues relating to food security in general. In my first contribution in this House, I focused on food security. Soon afterwards, in the early days of the pandemic, I focused on it again with the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, Deputy Creed. It is clear that the Department did not learn from that crisis but perhaps it will learn from this one.

Despite having such an extensive agriculture sector, we still rely very heavily on food imports. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine's policies and choice of markets have forced farmers into a small number of areas, which has very much reduced the diversity of our produce and, ultimately, reduced our resilience. Prior to the crisis in Ukraine, there was already a real need to shift away from producing feed grain and to scale up the production of food grain for direct human consumption. There is a real policy need to scale up local and indigenous nature-friendly food production. Increased production of cereals, pulses, fruit and vegetables would make Irish agriculture more environmentally friendly, would support Irish producers and, crucially, would improve our food security and sovereignty.

Pivoting quickly to tillage would be a challenge for the sector, but it needs to happen now if we are to have a grain harvest next year, because , obviously, there are many unknowns. Existing tillage farmers often face price volatility and unfair trading practices. As a result, growers will need support. Can the Minister of State outline the support the Department will be offering and the steps it will be taking to underpin that support?

It seems as though it may have, but has the situation prompted a shift in the thinking of Minister of State, of the senior Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and of the Department towards ensuring food security? Deputy Burke mentioned fertiliser. Are we to move away from reliance on that?

I will start by thanking Deputies Burke and Cairns for raising this important issue. The illegal invasion of Ukraine places the people of Ukraine and the dreadful plight the currently face foremost in our minds. The related grain and fertiliser supply issues have led to discussions across Europe on the issue of food security and the associated disruptions to supply lines.

These issue were discussed by EU agriculture ministers at an extraordinary AGRIFISH Council meeting last week. An appropriate response is being considered by the European Commission. On the back of that, we expect some proposals to support the agrifood sector from the Commission in the coming days. We also expect that we will continue to benefit from the free movement of food products and that we will continue to import and export food products within the EU. A contingency plan was developed at EU level during the Covid-19 crisis to ensure that EU citizens would not face food shortages during crises. A key part of this plan was the establishment of a European food security preparedness and response mechanism to ensure exchange of information and strengthened co-ordination on supply chains. Ireland will be an active participant in this mechanism and will be working with EU colleagues to ensure a common response. The first meeting of that group overseeing the mechanism will take place tomorrow, 9 March. The purpose of the meeting is to specifically discuss the food security impact of the energy and input price increases and of the situation in Ukraine. At national level, we have established a rapid response team within the Department to actively monitor the impact on agrifood supply chains and inflationary pressures arising from the developing situation in Ukraine.

A comprehensive information pack for farmers and their advisers on soils, nutrients and fertilisers has been put together by Teagasc in conjunction with my Department. A series of 20 fact sheets were made available at the start of this year on how to optimise the use of nutrients and to help farmers address the challenge of maintaining their farm outputs in the face of rising fertiliser costs and reduced availability. We met with the farm bodies this evening to discuss all possible options available to manage disruptions to the feed supply chain. Officials from the rapid response team have already begun engaging with all parts of the feed and fertiliser industry and we will be meeting them at ministerial level also in the coming days. A range of issues were discussed at this evening's meeting, with the focus very much centred on feed, fertiliser and fuel.

We cannot look at any part of this crisis of spiralling input costs in isolation. Every option has to be on the table to ensure that our farm systems are robust and prepared for the challenges in the year ahead. That is why we have agreed to form a group headed by Teagasc, but including all stakeholders, to focus on potential responses. Among those is the possibility of asking farmers, particularly tillage farmers, to grow more crops, in parts of the country where that is suitable. That measure will not be compulsory. Obviously, different parts of the country have different strengths in respect of their agricultural activity. Some areas have better ability to grow tillage crops, others grass and others again forage crops, which could be used by out-wintering cattle in order to remove some of the pressure in the context of demand for silage next winter.

On tillage, we are fortunate that the success of higher-yielding winter-sown crops is estimated to be greater for the coming harvest due to favourable autumn planting conditions. We are also very aware of the compressed timeline we have in the six- to eight-week window for spring crop establishment. Before we decide on specific response measures, however, it is important that we engage with all stakeholders to determine the availability of the inputs required, such as those relating to seed and fertiliser, farm equipment and grain-handling capacity. There are options in the context of forage crops, the management of silage production and the production of maize or beet. There are many sensible things we can do from an agronomy perspective in order to ensure our systems are as robust as possible.

The implications of anything we do require careful consideration. There is no one solution to the issues we face. We have a diverse farming system and we will need to rely on all aspects in the weeks and months ahead.

I thank the Minister in particular for his confirmation that there was a meeting this evening between the Minister of State and his officials and the farming organisations. I agree that there is a challenge as to the lack of clarity on the availability of seed and, in particular, fertiliser. The other issue of course is the cost of fuel.

There is also further challenge regarding the rotation cycle which tillage farmers are working on with Teagasc, and whether there can be a deviation from that three-year cycle for crops on foot of the changes that have occurred. I ask that this be taken into account in the advice that will be offered over the next four weeks. The priority then, basically, is to try to increase the acreage by encouraging farmers to do this and to make all of the necessary supports available in order that we can get more people on board to grow cereal crops this year.

I thank the Minister of State for the update. He mentioned a little bit about feed and fuel, and that is crucial for the whole sector. Seeds will play a pivotal role in the process, and the Minister of State talked about the availability of seeds to grow crops. We are supposed to declare an interest when we talk about particular matters in the House . My family owns a small seed company. My mother started the company because seeds are fundamental to food. Without seeds, we simply do not have any food, be it plant- or animal-based. We need to secure seeds not only for this year but for future harvests. If we are concerned about the import of wheat at the moment then I am wondering if the Department is giving the same consideration to the concern around the importation of seed for wheat. Are there plans to save the seed from the crops that will be harvested this year and in the years that follow as well?

Has that been a consideration of the Department so far? We have seen figures for how much wheat we import and how much of that comes from Ukraine and Russia. Have we done the same type of analysis of seed imports as well and where they are from globally? I am not aware of them.

I thank the Deputies for their follow-up questions. To respond to Deputy Colm Burke regarding the EU response and the deviation in crop rotation, these issues are being looked at and the potential response to them will be worked through. Everything is being examined at EU level. There is also the area of set-aside being talked about, as well as the ecological focus areas, EFAs. If they could be ploughed again, that would, over a period and over a large area of the country, give us considerable extra ground. These are all issues that officials in the Department and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and I are continuing to engage with at European level to try to get maximum flexibility there for an appropriate response in that regard. I hope to have more clarity on that and the type of supports package that might be in place from the EU in the near future, even in the coming days.

Deputy Cairns raised points regarding seed, and Deputy Colm Burke raised the point about the amount of grain that is produced by Ukraine and Russia. While we do not necessarily import that directly or purchase it from them, we are part of the global food supply chain and if that 20% to 30% of grain is not produced because the war is likely to impact on that, it will have an overall impact on world food supply chains. What we want to do is ensure that our system in Ireland is as robust as possible. The points Deputy Cairns highlighted are valid in terms of ensuring not just the immediate focus of the next six to eight weeks of the spring crop planting season but also that we look at the years into the future, because the impacts of this conflict will be there for some time into the future. However, we have a very resilient and robust agriculture sector. Farmers are very good at working together, and have done so in the past. With the support of the Government, the Department and the farming organisations we met this evening, we will work together across all the industry, which has a key role to play here, to ensure we support the farmers to do what needs to be done to avoid a crisis. We do not have a crisis in food security right now and we do not have a feed crisis, but we want to make sure we do not have one next winter. That is why we must use the time we have now, the best available to us, to support farmers to do what needs to be done to secure the food supply chain into the future.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 11.13 p.m. go dtí 9.12 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 9 Márta 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 11.13 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 March 2022.
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