Commencement Matters

Rural Development Programme Projects

I am seeking funding for the rural men's shed projects and clubs. I do not know whether funding for these projects comes from the Departments of Health, Social Protection, the Environment, Community and Local Government or Agriculture, Food and the Marine. There is no doubt these men's sheds do fascinating work. I recently brought the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection to view two such projects in County Roscommon, one in Boyle and the other in Dysart. It is amazing the work that has been done in local communities by bringing elderly people together. This initiative is in line with the Government’s 2013 policy on ageing, dealing with rural isolation and protecting people who might suffer from depression. It is designed to empower people and does what it says on the tin, namely, it works. All of this great work assists the Government by cutting down on health expenditure, keeping people living in their communities longer, and easing pressure on nursing homes and hospitals. However, there does not seem to be any financial appreciation for all the work these projects do because they have to fund-raise to sustain their projects. These are worthy projects and a little amount of funding will go a long way. I hope the Minister of State will be able to find some way of finding funding for these projects.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly.

The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has funded men’s shed projects under both the rural development fund and the Leader element of the 2007 to 2013 rural development programme. Funding has been provided to renovate buildings to house these types of initiatives and also for tools and equipment.

Since the downturn in the construction industry in particular, some men have found themselves becoming unemployed and, in some rural areas such as Boyle and Dysart, County Roscommon, this has led to situations of isolation for individuals. Men’s shed projects have played an important part in addressing these situations, supporting initiatives where new friendships have been developed and communities have benefited from the products and services provided. There are almost 220 men's sheds in Ireland with over 7,000 members. Some wonderful projects have grown from these initiatives such as the restoration of old farm machinery to the production of some fantastic wooden pieces. They have helped men in several communities to come together to work on initiatives which they might not have done otherwise.

The Government, through the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, provides supports and funding to communities, urban and rural, which enables them to identify and address issues and priorities for action in their own areas. Communities have identified men's shed projects as a priority for funding in their areas.

Many projects of this nature have been funded under the Leader element of the Rural Development Programme 2007-2013. On future funding of these projects, €250 million will be provided under the forthcoming Leader element of the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 to support the sustainable development of rural communities across the country. This funding will be delivered using a community-led local development approach based on local development strategies. These strategies will be designed and implemented by local action groups. It should be noted that all decisions relating to funding for specific projects, including those relating to men's sheds will be a matter for the local action group and will be made based on the needs and priorities that the group have identified in their local development strategy. This type of decision-making is at the heart of sustainable development in rural communities. We are all firm believers in leaving decisions in the hands of the people who know their communities best.

I can assure the Senator that funding for this type of activity will be eligible under the programme, provided that it is included in the relevant area's Leader strategy.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is important that it be set in stone that when rural men's clubs or men's shed projects apply to Leader for funding the response should not be a blanket "No" so that there is an opportunity for them to access funding. Much more needs to be done. I appreciate the Minister of State's response and ask that he relay to the Minister that this has to happen.

I will relay the issues raised by Senator Kelly to the Minister. There is also an opportunity for the national men's shed umbrella organisation to potentially use its leverage to attain membership of the local action groups. I believe that the stakeholder model, in terms of the funding that has been espoused by Senator Kelly, in which the HSE is an actor, could become a major influencer for funding these activities. I do not see any reason the umbrella organisation could not become part of the local area groups and thereby influence funding decisions at the most democratic level.

I will certainly relay the Senator's concerns to the Minister.

Syrian Conflict

I am interested in hearing what Ireland and the EU are doing to help bring about an end to the conflict in Syria, to stop Assad's aerial bombardment of civilians, to ensure food aid is getting through and to assist refugees fleeing their homes in terror. I also take this opportunity to stress the need for the international community to help address the root causes of the conflict and secure a brighter future for Syrians, without either Assad or ISIS.

ISIS are barbarians intent on imposing by force a particularly regressive form of religious fundamentalism on the people of Iraq and Syria. While the killing of foreign journalists and aid workers has attracted the greatest attention internationally ISIS has been mounting a vicious campaign against innocent Iraqi and Syrian civilians. Countless civilians have been injured or killed, while half of the population have been forced from their homes. In addition, ISIS has kidnapped school children, reportedly to turn the boys into terrorists and the girls into sex slaves. They are committing appalling atrocities and must be stopped. Blindly backing the current Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is not the solution.

Assad is a tyrant who has used chemical weapons against his own people. His Government and secret police have routinely tortured, imprisoned and killed political opponents and those who speak out against his regime. Now, he is using the fight against ISIS to barrel-bomb innocent civilians. As pointed out by Human Rights Watch, Assad's barrel-bombs are the greatest threat to civilians in Syria. Assad does not use these bombs on the front line between government troops and ISIS as he is worried, because they are such an indiscriminate weapon, that Syrian soldiers could be killed yet they are routinely unleashed in civilian areas in opposition controlled territory in an attempt to petrify innocent civilians.

If the international community is serious about stopping ISIS it must address the root causes of its rise.

Religious fundamentalism is one cause, but probably a minority one. President Assad's murderous reign is more significant. For some Syrians, ISIS is the only group they see standing up against President Assad. If the international community is serious about delivering justice for the people of Iraq and Syria, it must stop both ISIS and President Assad and support the development of a democratic and legitimate government in Syria. In 2013, President Obama described President Assad as a dictator and said he must step down. Now the US is working with him against ISIS. This short-term approach will not address the underlying causes of the conflict. There is a need for much longer-term thinking and bravery in helping genuine opposition groups in Syria and standing on the side of civilians against both President Assad and ISIS.

I have tabled this debate to ask what the Irish Government is doing to further this aim internationally, particularly through the European Union. The international response to date has been very weak. First it was to criticise President Assad but now, with the rise of ISIS, the US and others are backing President Assad against ISIS. However, there does not seem to be any long-term or intelligent engagement with a view to moving beyond both of these goals. What is the Irish Government doing to address that issue?

I also want to raise the issue of the refugees. The vast majority of refugees who make it out of Syia are living in neighbouring countries but increasingly, thousands are risking their lives, many of them dying on overcrowded boats, paying people traffickers to get them to the EU. They are being abandoned and are drowning at sea because the EU has not been able to come up with a collective approach to accepting its fair share of the refugees. What is the Irish Government doing to address that?

I fully endorse the concerns expressed by Senator Power. The Syrian conflict has been a litany of unimaginable horrors. More than half the population has been displaced by violence and almost two thirds of Syrians, 12 million people, are in need of humanitarian assistance. Less than half of Syria's hospitals are fully functioning and around one quarter of schools have been damaged, destroyed or converted into shelters. This has left more than 2 million children without full-time education, jeopardising the future of the next generation.

The Assad regime's permissive approach to the rise of jihadist terrorist groups like ISIS proves that the regime is indifferent to the safety of its own people and to the survival of minorities, including the ancient Christian and other religious minorities across Syria. Countering the horrific brutality and extremist ideology of these groups is essential to the protection of vulnerable minorities across the Middle East. Ireland has called on the Security Council to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court. In 2014, Ireland provided €14.9 million in funding to address the Syria crisis via NGO partners, the United Nations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent. This includes €2.4 million provided in 2014 to the World Food Programme for food assistance. This brings the total funding we have provided since the beginning of the crisis to almost €30 million.

The needs are enormous. It is not just a matter of providing aid but also of ensuring that it can get through to the people who most need it. This is particularly difficult inside Syria due to government bureaucracy, the hazards of the ongoing conflict and the threats to humanitarian personnel, which make it all but impossible to work in ISIS-controlled areas. The UN has authorised the delivery of cross-border assistance even without Syrian Government permission, as well as delivery across conflict lines, in an effort to reach as many people as possible. Ireland uses a number of different partners to deliver our aid in order to ensure the greatest access possible and to support refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries. Due to the violence and the lack of access to aid, huge numbers of people have left Syria, primarily overland into neighbouring countries. Some 3.8 million Syrians have fled their country and that number grows every day. Essential services such as health, education and access to water are under pressure in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. One in three people in Lebanon are refugees, placing the entire country under great strain. Syria's neighbours are also suffering security incidents from the spillover of the conflict.

Ireland and its EU partners have consistently supported the core principles of an end to violence and a political transition to a representative government representing Syrians from all communities, as set out in the 2012 Geneva communiqué. We have also expressed our support for the conflict freeze initiative proposed by UN special envoy, Staffan di Mistura, who met with EU foreign Ministers in December. Despite the failure of past efforts to negotiate an end to the violence, we have a duty to continue working for a political resolution to the conflict and will continue to work towards that end.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Although he said that Ireland and the EU have been pushing for an end to the violence and a transition to representative government, there is no sign of that getting anywhere. It is not something that has been getting any international attention. As a result, there is very little faith. I have met with Syrian representatives here in Ireland and there is very little confidence within Syria among the ordinary population that any real effort is being made to find a third way out of this conflict or to support the establishment of a genuinely peaceful and representative government. I ask the Minister of State to stress to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, the need to redouble those efforts. We need to see a serious effort. Words criticising Assad are not enough when we are also backing him because, in the short term, ISIS is seen as a greater evil. It is not enough. There is a need for proper and real engagement.

The other issue was barrel bombs. The Minister of State might ask the Minister to push for a no-fly zone over those areas because Assad is cruelly attacking civilian areas. His regime has bombed markets and places like that.

I welcome the fact that Ireland and the EU are contributing to food aid but the reality is that it has not been getting through. Given our own history of famine, I ask that a greater effort be made in order that the aid gets through. People are starving and they are starving to death, not because aid is not being provided but because Assad is cynically stopping it from getting to civilians in opposition-controlled areas, ostensibly as a way of trying to put pressure on ISIS, but really just killing innocent civilians. I appreciate that efforts are being undertaken but we need to do so much more. This is the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world and there seems to be so little international attention on it.

I agree with everything the Senator is saying. In fairness to Ireland, from a humanitarian point of view the commitment of €30 million since 2011 is significant. There is a major challenge in getting that through to the people who need it the most. The Senator will be aware that there is a donor pledging conference, Kuwait III, coming up on 31 March to seek support for the UN's humanitarian response. We are currently considering our pledges in respect of that conference.

On the security situation, the no-fly zone and the conflict on the ground, Ireland is playing its part and it has to be stated that the United Nations, and in particular the Security Council, has to address the failure to uphold international humanitarian assistance in Syria. It has to look at the deliberate targeting of civilians and minority groups. There is a function there for the Security Council and, through its own diplomatic channels, Ireland has also been seeking a resolution.

Syria has now moved from being the world's second-largest refugee hosting country to being the largest refugee producing country within a span of just seven years. As a Government and as a nation, we fully recognise the extent of this crisis. I believe strongly that we can deliver a further commitment of funding towards the humanitarian element through working with the NGOs on the ground.

I note the points that have been made on the bonds and the no-fly zone and will certainly relay them back to the Minister, Deputy Flanagan.

Waste Management

I welcome the Minister. It is my view, and it is well-founded, that our country has had a sorry and pitiful experience and relationship with many of its regulators and watchdogs. That is particularly the case with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, which is charged with protecting the environment and local communities. My specific question pertains to a debate conducted in the Seanad on 9 July last year when the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, former Deputy Phil Hogan, in one of his final functions as Minister, on foot of a debate in this House, fairly instructed the EPA to conduct an investigation and report on the activities of the Enva waste oil recycling plant in Portlaoise, with particular regard to the ongoing concerns about the unlicensed and unregulated open vent emissions, which I believe are potentially carcinogenic and toxic. The Minister took our concerns very seriously. He asked the EPA to carry out an inquiry and report into the matter and directed on that day that the report would be made public.

Furthermore, as recently as 4 November, before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, the director general of the EPA, along with other senior officials, in response to a question from my colleague, Senator Denis Landy, indicated that such a report had been concluded and that its publication was imminent. In view of this we have been patient but at this stage the public and public representatives are entitled to have this report put into the public domain so we can see what the EPA has cooked up on this occasion.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and the Senator might want to check what I say against delivery.

Under section 60(3) of the Waste Management Act 1996, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is precluded from exercising any power or control regarding the performance by the Environmental Protection Agency or a local authority in particular circumstances of a statutory function vested in it, including enforcement functions. Issues concerning the enforcement of waste management legislation in particular cases, therefore, fall to be pursued with the EPA or the relevant local authority, as appropriate.

The treatment and management of waste material is subject to a registration and permitting system by local authorities or licensing by the EPA, depending on the circumstances. The particular facility the Senator refers to is licensed by the EPA and it is understood that the EPA, in the context of its role as the licensing authority, is preparing a report which will be made available on completion. The primary purpose of the licensing, permitting and registration system is to facilitate appropriate controls on waste facilities and activities so as to ensure good and consistent waste management practice and the implementation of high standards of environmental protection.

I refer to the Government's waste policy published in 2012, A Resource Opportunity - Waste Management Policy in Ireland. I acknowledge there is a group comprised of representatives from local authorities also and that this group has made recommendations for the rationalisation of waste enforcement functions. However, for the purposes of addressing the concerns of the Senator it is acknowledged on the record that the former Minister directed the EPA to carry out a report and that the report would be made available on completion. I am reinforcing that message today. I do not have a definitive timeframe as to when it will occur but I would be happy to engage further with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to see if we can get further information as to when we could expect the publication of the report. Speaking on behalf of the Government, we fully expect the report to be published.

I appreciate the Minister of State's reply but I believe he will share my concerns, not least in regard to the delay. I was not asking the Government or the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to interfere unduly with the functions or operations of the EPA, but the agency made a commitment to conducting a report as far back as July of last year and to make that report public. Eight months later when there is still no sign of a report, or whatever whitewash it comes up with this time, it is not unfair to suggest that the Minister or his Department should ask that the report be published expeditiously. Far from constituting interference, he would be acting in the public interest. We are entitled to that much.

I accept the Senator is not suggesting that we should exercise undue influence. The legislation is very clear in that regard. However, it could be pertinent to ask when we might expect the report to be published. To my mind, that would be entirely appropriate.

Mental Health Services Provision

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for taking my Commencement matter on the proposed national forensics mental health services hospital in Portrane, County Dublin, for which a planning application has been lodged. I am sure she has had an opportunity to visit the St. Ita's campus. The people in Portrane, Donabate and elsewhere on that peninsula have a long-standing tradition of caring for people with mental and physical disabilities, particularly in psychiatric services. My friend and colleague, Councillor Adrian Henchy, who is newly elected to Fingal County Council, has done considerable work to engage with residents prior to the submission by the HSE of a planning application to An Bord Pleanála.

The vast majority of residents on the peninsula support this proposal. It will breathe new life into St. Ita's, and the proposed 175-bed hospital is badly needed. The jobs and additional services that will be created will also benefit the area. However, I have raised this issue because Councillor Henchy has asked me to bring to the attention of the Minister of State some of the concerns that have been expressed by residents.

The proposal as currently drafted by the HSE leaves a lot to be desired, particularly given that the construction of the hospital is expected to take two years. I ask the Minister of State to set out a timeframe for construction. Local schools and sports clubs have also raised major concerns which we do not believe the HSE has addressed in its application. We have made submissions to highlight that but we want these concerns to be taken on board. There is only one access point at present, and the only way to deal with this is to construct a separate haul road. Donabate is an area with a young population and there will be thousands of vehicle trips over the two years of construction, with heavy traffic travelling through the village. That is not going to work. I hope An Bord Pleanála takes account of these concerns.

I take it the Department of Health has an interest in ensuring this facility is delivered on time and within cost. If this objective is to be achieved, the HSE should engage with the local community through public representatives like me or Councillor Henchy, or directly with the community council.

The HSE has tried to pull a fast one with its proposals for community gain, as provided for in the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006. The proposals are pathetic, amounting to little more than handing over the leases for a couple of football pitches. A project of this magnitude should include a specific budget of between 4% and 5% for community gain. I recognise the HSE is probably starting with its lowest offer but there are many good initiatives it could be supporting. The community broadly welcomes the facility but it is important for the HSE to be a good neighbour to people in Donabate and Portrane.

Councillor Henchy, our colleagues and I have highlighted in our submissions that the HSE needs to go further regarding community gain and consider our existing senior citizens, sports clubs in the area, community facilities that the HSE can assist on a once-off basis of funding and getting involved in the local community. Councillor Henchy and I have made a submission on the basis of supporting this, and most people in Donabate and Portrane support the development of this very important national facility and we want it to work. We want the HSE to be reasonable about construction, which is the central issue, and the community gains. I thank the Minister for coming here. I appreciate her time.

The Senator will understand that the question as framed does not go into the type of detail he has just given me. However, I take on board his point on construction issues. I was very heavily involved in planning for the redevelopment of my area in Cork and I fully understand the type of disruption, dust, mud, traffic and times for cessation of works involved. I am hopeful that An Bord Pleanála will take it all on board, as it usually does. Sometimes the difficulty is that people who make submissions - I fully recognise that we are discussing submissions rather than objections - are not always aware of the need to specify, for example, that they would prefer if work did not begin at 8 a.m. on bank holiday Mondays. I have learned this through personal experience through the years. I am very conscious that the community in question, while it had a facility for a long time, has allowed the passage of this without obstruction. As the Senator said, it is a national issue for which we should have made provision a number of years ago but did not.

The modernisation of all aspects of our mental health services in line with A Vision for Change remains a key objective of the Government. The HSE has been provided with funding of just over €790 million for mental health services in 2015, which reflects the Government's commitment to this vital service area. The additional €35 million we provided for mental health in the 2015 budget brings to €125 million the new investment in mental health since 2012. The additional funding this year will enhance a range of services including general adult teams, psychiatry of later life, and child and adolescent community based care. There will be further recruitment and investment in agencies and services to achieve consistent provision across all areas. I fully recognise that this will bring significant employment into the area. While not all of it will come from the area, services that will have to be provided should come from as local an area as possible, and the services will be significant.

The Government's policy on mental health also recognises the clear need to address historic infrastructural deficiencies, including delivery of new facilities for the national forensic mental health service, NFMHS. Therefore, a major capital project is under way to replace the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum with an appropriate modern facility, allied to corresponding development of regional intensive care rehabilitation units, ICRUs. This should not be forgotten because it is part of the overall plan. This capital project, known as the national forensic mental health services project, is being delivered in two phases. Phase one comprises a number of core project requirements at St. Ita's, Portrane, namely, a 120-bed national forensic hospital to replace the Central Mental Hospital; a ten-bed mental health intellectual disability forensic unit; and a ten-bed child and adolescent mental health forensic unit. As public representatives down through the years we have all seen people desperately seeking facilities for people with intellectual disabilities as well as mental health issues.

Following completion of phase one of the project, phase two will involve, subject to resource availability in future years, the provision of three 30-bed ICRUs at Portrane, Galway and Cork.

A fourth intensive care rehabilitation unit, ICRU, is planned for Mullingar through reconfiguration of an existing facility. Essentially, what the experts tell me - because as I state continually, I am not an expert - is there are people within the Central Mental Hospital, CMH, who could be catered for much closer to home to allow them to stay connected to their families but who still need the type of intensive rehabilitation they get within the Central Mental Hospital. Project and design teams have been appointed for this important new initiative. The existing Health Service Executive, HSE, capital programme allows for phase one of the project, that is, the Portrane facilities, to be operational towards the end of 2018 and for design work to be progressed on phase two, that is, the three ICRUs. The capital project for the replacement of the CMH on the site at St. Ita's, Portrane, has been designated as a strategic infrastructural development. The site has been rezoned and a planning application was lodged by the HSE with An Bord Pleanála in September 2014. Allowing for the planning process, it is expected that a decision on the project will be made in the second quarter of this year. Subject to a grant of planning, enabling works will commence on the site at Portrane shortly thereafter. Construction is expected to commence in early 2016 and to be completed around mid-2018. As is normal in major health capital projects, the equipping stages and final works then will be undertaken. In this context, it is envisaged that the new facility subsequently will become operational towards the end of 2018. Bearing in mind all the circumstances, I am satisfied that good progress has been made and will continue to be made on this important project. Equally however, I take on board the Senator's comments regarding construction and disruption to the population and the general area around it.

Briefly, I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive response and for taking on board the issues I have raised about construction. It is important to get community buy-in for all health facilities nationwide. St. Ita's always has been linked inextricably to, and has been part of, the community and everyone wants that to continue. The HSE can help with this by way of what I have suggested with regard to community gain and in examining how the HSE can assist our sports. This is a major project that probably will run to €100 million and more in construction costs and I believe the HSE must give a little more. However, I thank the Minister of State and will keep her abreast of the position in Donabate and Portrane. I thank her for her commitment to this facility because the community has really engaged on it. I also wish to commend Donabate Portrane Community Council, all the sports clubs, the local representatives and, in particular, my friend and colleague, Councillor Adrian Henchy, on the work they have done. Through working together on this, a world-class facility can be produced, which is what is sought. I again thank the Minister of State for taking the time to come into the House today, which I appreciate.

Briefly, as I would not like the impression to go around, the Senator understands it would be highly inappropriate for me to interfere at this point.

No, I do not want her to do that.

However, his concerns will be relayed to those who eventually will be carrying this out.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.