Commencement Matters

Regional Airports

Before Senator Michelle Mulherin begins, I have received complaints from different sides of the House that I have been too lax and flaithiúlach with the time allowed. Senators will, therefore, be constrained to four minutes. The Minister or Minister of State will respond and it will be at my discretion to allow a supplementary question. Somebody raised a pertinent point in the last term that we could try to have five matters rather than four in the time allowed. I have looked at the logistics and it is not possible. I timed Members and some used one or two extra minutes, with the Minister taking longer to reply. That means that it would be impossible to accommodate five matters as it would encroach on the Order of Business. I am not referring the Senator Michelle Mulherin but just saying it in general.

I will not take that personally and thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing the matter.

I welcome the Minister of State. This issue has been ongoing for a long time and I ask that, once and for all, proper grant aid be provided for Ireland West Airport at Knock. Under current state aid rules, only 75% may be provided by the Government. The airport has been in negotiations with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport for a number of years and undertook work in a study group established jointly between the board at Knock and the Department as part of an in-depth review to consider the strategic options for the development of the airport. The airport wants to become self-financing and must do so by 2023. The study group did its work over three years ago. It was prompted after May 2012 by a package announced for Shannon Airport to make it independent. It wrote off €100 million in debt and provided other benefits for Shannon Airport in order that it would go from strength to strength.

Knock airport has been a success story against the odds. It is an airport owned by the people and needs proper support, for which it has been waiting too long. Even at this stage, it is not looking at expansion next year but basic maintenance. It needs a pavement overlay of the runway which is 30 years old and this work will cost €7 million. If we assume that the State will give some money, under state aid rules, the airport must still come up with €2 million that it does not have.

I thank the seven local authorities in the west that have invested in Knock airport and paid over €3.2 million in July this year as part of taking a share in the airport. They will contribute approximately another €4 million. This money may only be used for marketing and development of the airport, not basic maintenance. There must be some serious commitment shown to Knock airport.

Statistics released in July indicated there had been 0% employment growth in the west, if we take into account jobs still being lost which offset those being created.

According to the last census, three counties in the west - Mayo, Sligo and Donegal - are the only ones in the country that have lost population. We have no major inter-urban routes, motorways, high-speed trains or major deep water ports. The more recent statistics will show that there is disadvantage. Ireland West Airport Knock is key and strategic and something seriously needs to be done about supporting it once and for all. Time is ticking on the clock and, according to European rules, the airports have to become self-financing by 2025.

The regional airport programme was approved by the European Commission for the period 2015 to 2019. When the case was made by the Department to the Commission, why was a request to allow 90% funding not made to the Commission for Ireland West Airport Knock also? Why was a special case not made for that airport at the same time? Dialogue and discussions have been ongoing since and Shannon Airport has been bailed out and funded handsomely. Conversations have been ongoing, yet we are heading into the fourth year and still there is nothing substantial for Knock airport.

We sold the State's share in Aer Lingus for €335 million. Where is this money? Surely it is obvious to invest it in the likes of Ireland West Airport Knock which is badly in need of the funding. I welcome the €1.3 million for safety and security measures at the airport, which was granted approximately two weeks ago by the Department. Obviously, however, this has nothing to do with expansion and merely concerns essential safety and security work. When will the Department and the Government be serious about funding Ireland West Airport Knock? It is critical for the west. A serious effort needs to be made now.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and her serious commitment to it for a number of years. There are two distinct elements to her question: funding for regional airports; and the role of the connectivity fund. I wil deall first with the regional airports programme which will set the context for an examination of the potential role for the connectivity fund.

As the Senator will be aware, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, oversees the regional airports programme. The current five-year programme, covering the period 2015 to 2019, provides targeted supports for the four regional airports, namely, Kerry Airport, Donegal Airport, Waterford Airport and Ireland West Airport Knock. The programme acknowledges the key role played by regional airports in supporting the tourism and business sectors in their respective regions. As the Senator is aware, the programme was approved by the European Commission in August 2015 under the 2014 EU guidelines on state aid to airports and airlines and includes provision for Exchequer support towards safety and security projects at the four regional airports.

Under the 2014 EU guidelines, state aid for capital projects at airports is limited to a maximum of 75% of the eligible cost of the project. However, I understand the guidelines also acknowledge that investment projects at airports with average traffic flow below 1 million passengers per annum located in peripheral regions may experience a funding gap. In the light of this and subject to a case by case assessment, state aid exceeding 75% may be justified in exceptional circumstances. In such a scenario, the European Commission has indicated that a business case justifying a higher aid rate would have to be approved by it. It should be noted that this state aid is for the eligible cost of the project, namely, the funding gap after the airport has used its own revenue or other funding. It is not for the gross cost of the project. I am informed that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has indicated to Ireland West Airport Knock that it will support the airport's case to the European Commission to permit grant aid of up to 90%. I understand Ireland West Airport Knock has also sought assistance from the Department in preparing an application and that departmental officials are engaging with the airport on it.

Funding provided under the regional airports programme must have regard to the total funding available each year to support all four regional airports. I understand this year the Department has approved €2 million in grant aid for safety and security investment at Knock airport. This represents half of all the capital funding allocated to all four regional airports this year. In that context, we can examine the potential role of the connectivity fund in supporting regional airports such as Knock. The connectivity fund was formed to invest the €335 million proceeds from the sale of the State's shareholding in Aer Lingus, with the aim of enabling and enhancing Ireland's physical, virtual and energy connectivity. The connectivity fund is a sub-portfolio of the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF. The fund adheres to the broader ISIF mandate which is known as the double bottom line, whereby each investment must be made on a commercial basis to support economic activity and employment in Ireland.

The Senator's question refers specifically to a potential role for the ISIF and the connectivity fund at Ireland West Airport Knock. As outlined, in the context of the fund's mandate, any investment at Ireland West Airport, Knock would need to meet the ISIF's double bottom line requirements. Grant aid does not constitute a commercial investment and the provision of grant aid from the ISIF or the connectivity fund would not be consistent with the mandate.

The ISIF team has advised me that it is available to consult the Knock airport authorities to explore potential investments. Any such investment would be on commercial terms and may be structured such that it can work alongside any grant assistance from other sources.

My second question has been partially answered. Why is the Department only now having an agreement with Knock airport that it is going to make a special case to the European Commission that would entitle the State to give 90% grant aid funding? This has been ongoing for three years, including after the study group undertaking and its report. Why has nothing been done? Knock airport requires seven local authorities to bail it out. This did not happen with Shannon, Dublin or Cork airports, or anywhere else. Knock airport is not the same as the other regional airports. The other regional airports lie close to other major airports, considering the major motorways available. Why was it not done when the regional airports plan was being submitted to the European Commission? Why is it taking so long for Knock airport to be helped now that the Government seems to concede that it will work with the airport? Last July it agreed with airport management on five documents that would need to be prepared and it is only being done now. How is Knock airport being helped in a timely fashion to grow and become self-financing? That is all we want, not to continue to receive handouts.

It is not the case that nothing has been done. In 2016 alone the Department has approved €2 million in grant aid for safety and security investment at Knock airport, half of all the capital that has gone into the four regional airports this year. Regarding state aid, a case by case assessment and approval from the European Commission is needed and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has indicated that it is more than willing to work with Knock airport to try to reach the 90% figure with the Commission. That is the appropriate way to go about it.

It has been ongoing for three years.

I call Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn to raise his matter.

The Minister will be aware that City of Derry Airport serves not just Derry but the entire region which has a population of 500,000 people. It is the only region on the island that has no rail link, no motorway link and now no air link to the capital city, Dublin. At City of Derry Airport 40% of the passengers, approximately 140,000 to 150,000 per year, are from County Donegal. Since 2010 the Irish Government has withdrawn funding for the Dublin to Derry link and I appeal to the Minister of State to reconsider the decision. Whether through a public service obligation or other means of funding, I ask him to meet his responsibility, particularly to the 140,000 to 150,000 passengers from County Donegal who use this vital regional airport.

If we are serious about promoting the Wild Atlantic Way and tourism, for which the Minister of State is also responsible, if we are talking about getting tourists from North America and elsewhere in Europe into the north-west region, including counties Donegal, Derry and Tyrone, connectivity to Dublin is vital. Tourists are flying into Dublin. If they can get a connecting flight onwards to Derry, it is a major boost to the region. I ask the Minister of State and his senior colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, to step up to the plate and put financial support on the table for this vital regional airport.

I will share time with my colleague, Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile.

I will allow the Senator to speak; however, normally if Senators wish to share time, they must state it at the beginning.

Apologies; it was my fault.

I did not want to be seen to reprimand the Senator.

Last week Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and I, with other elected representatives from our party, met the board of City of Derry Airport. Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn has outlined the key strategic benefit it brings to the broader north-west region, not least in terms of its immediate link with the Wild Atlantic Way and everything that it can potentially offer to that part of the country. Do the Minister of State and the Department recognise the key strategic economic benefit of City of Derry Airport as an asset? Would he and the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, be prepared to meet the board of the airport - at its request - to discuss these issues? It is an exciting time for the airport, given the investment from the Executive of £7 million to progress issues relating to route development and other infrastructural issues. We could do much more, however. As Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said, with 40% of the airport’s footfall coming from County Donegal, it is past time the Government appreciated the significant asset the city airport represents and brought about the necessary investment to ensure it will get over the line in the context of the fantastic work it is doing.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis na Seanadóirí as ucht an t-ábhar seo a ardú inniu. I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross.

There are no plans to provide Exchequer funding for City of Derry Airport. As the Senators will be aware, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has a five-year regional airports programme, covering the period 2015 to 2019, to provide targeted supports for the four regional airports, namely, Kerry, Donegal, Waterford airports and Ireland West Airport Knock. The programme was approved by the European Commission in August 2015 under the 2014 EU guidelines on state aid to airports and airlines.

Our programme provides for Exchequer support towards safety and security-related projects and activities at the four regional airports. It also supports the two public service obligation, PSO, air routes from Donegal and Kerry airports to Dublin. The national aviation policy published by the Department last August acknowledges the role played by the regional airports in Kerry, Donegal, Waterford and Knock as being important in promoting a level of international connectivity to support the tourism and business sectors in their regions. The policy also confirms that these four airports are being given the opportunity to grow to viable, self-sustaining positions. In that regard, our policy is to continue to support safety and security projects and activities at these airports, where appropriate. During the summer holidays, I had reason to be at Donegal Airport in Carrickfinn. I was very much taken by the level of service provided and the facilities available there.

I am aware of the recent plans by Ryanair to reduce services from City of Derry Airport next year and appreciate the challenge this poses for the authorities there. The Irish Government provided City of Derry Airport with funding support in the past. There was a PSO on the Derry-Dublin route for ten years, from 2001 to 2011. The subsidies needed to support the PSO were fully funded by the Irish Exchequer. It ended following a value for money review of Exchequer expenditure on the regional airports programme, published by the Department in 2011. The Derry-Dublin route was not the only PSO service to be ended at the time. The PSO routes linking Knock, Galway and Sligo were also discontinued. The only PSO routes we have today are those linking Donegal and Kerry airports with Dublin. In addition, the Irish and UK Governments jointly funded substantial safety works at City of Derry Airport between 2005 and 2012. The two Governments contributed 75% of the cost of these works on a 50:50 basis, while the balance of 25% was provided by the airport owner, Derry City and Strabane District Council.

While the Derry-Dublin PSO instituted in 2001 satisfied the regulatory criteria at the time for PSOs, the political dimension also played a role in the initiative in our co-operation with the UK Government in funding the runway safety works at City of Derry Airport. The Good Friday Agreement had been signed in 1998 and endorsed by means of referenda, North and South. While there is much work still to be done, what has been achieved in the peace process in facilitating reconciliation in the past two decades is exceptional.

The financial landscape also changed compared to 15 years ago. We must ensure we make the best use of limited Exchequer resources. The funding available to the Department in the coming years will be fully required to support our two PSO routes to counties Donegal and Kerry, while continuing to provide support to the four regional airports in the areas of safety and security.

I was pleased to note earlier in the week that the Northern Ireland Executive had announced a £7 million package to assist development and growth in and around City of Derry Airport, including £2.5 million to support routes from the airport.

I understand the airport and the city council are in discussion with the Department for Transport in the United Kingdom to endeavour to secure PSO from the UK authorities for an air service that would link Derry with a London hub. City of Derry Airport considers that such a PSO route would be hugely beneficial for business and tourism users, given that the Ryanair service to Stansted Airport is due to cease next March. I echo the sentiments of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that their package of support will enable City of Derry Airport to invest in route development and capital projects and, ultimately, allow the airport to plan for the future.

I will bring the specific issues raised by the Senators relating to tourism and the possibility of a meeting to the Minister's attention. I could meet Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn to explore the issue further.

It would be helpful if the Minister of State could do so. I would appreciate it if the Minister could meet Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile and me to discuss the issue. I ask the Minister and the Minister of State to meet the board and management of City of Derry Airport. The Minister of State mentioned Donegal Airport in Carrickfinn, which is a fine airport that should be supported. However, if one looks at people in Inishowen, one can see that Belfast is closer to them than Carrickfinn; therefore, the geography is obvious. That is why 150,000 people in Donegal use City of Derry Airport every year - 40% of all its passengers.

The Government is not being asked to fully fund a PSO. It is being asked to co-fund it with the British Government. The airport's proposition to the Irish Government is a really good deal. It does not just involve investing in the transport infrastructure but investing in the tourism infrastructure. If we talk about the Causeway Coastal Route and the Wild Atlantic Way, a big vision for people in Donegal, Derry, Tyrone and the north west involves connecting these two very successful tourist links and having a vision for the region. Investment by the Irish Government in City of Derry Airport would be very positive and productive financially.

While I welcome the Minister of State's commitment to meet Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile and me, I ask him to also meet the board and management of the airport. I believe that when he hears what they have to say, the Government will invest in the airport. It is our responsibility and the right thing to do.

I think everyone in the House will accept that the Government has very limited resources for the development of regional airports. We have two PSO routes - from Kerry and Donegal. A number of PSO routes have already been, for want of a better word, withdrawn. They include Waterford, Galway, Sligo and Derry. Based on the limited resources available, given the limitations and the fact that the policy has already been subject to scrutiny by the European Commission, we must work within the parameters set out in the Department's policies.

While I do not have a direct role in aviation or transport policy, I do have a role in tourism development. Certainly, I do not have any difficulty with meeting stakeholders along the Wild Atlantic Way. I holidayed in County Donegal this year and the previous year and I have to say it has an awful lot to offer. I would have no difficulty in engaging with public representatives from Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim on the development of the north west.

I will relay the Senator's sentiments to the Minister and ask his office to arrange at the earliest opportunity for him to engage with all Members of the Oireachtas from County Donegal on this issue.

School Transport Eligibility

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to discuss the provision whereby if a family have a medical card and there is space on the bus, a pupil is entitled to a concessionary ticket to the school of their choice. I know that the Minister of State is looking at the issue of school transport, but this issue is very contentious.

The nearest-school rule has proved to be disastrous for some rural schools because it has halved the numbers attending. It is also an issue that pupils in some counties who went to primary school together have to go to separate secondary schools owing to quirks in the system. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of some of these issues.

The specific question I have, however, is on the medical card and whether a particular person would be entitled to a concessionary ticket to a school of his or her choice if there was space available on the bus. The child does not have any choice and must go to the school designated by Bus Éireann.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter. School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. During the 2015-16 school year, approximately 114,000 children, including almost 10,000 children with special needs, were transported on a daily basis to schools nationally. That is 114,000 to school and 114,000 from school. The 10,000 children with special needs are transported from door to door. It is a significant logistics operation that takes place almost every day.

I will set out first the purpose of the school transport scheme. Having regard to available resources, the purpose of the scheme is to support and transport to and from schools children who reside at a remote distance from the nearest school. Children are eligible for transport where they reside not less than 4.8 km from their nearest post-primary school or 3.2 km from their nearest primary school as determined by the Department and Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language.

While it is the prerogative of parents to send their children to the school of their choice, eligibility for school transport is to the nearest school or education centre. Children who are not eligible for school transport may apply for transport on a concessionary basis only. The current difficulties are with concessionary tickets as they have increased dramatically in the past few years. At one stage, there were approximately 5,000 such tickets, whereas there are now approximately 22,000 concessionary tickets for children using school transport. School transport is for eligible children who have been catered for in the payment of a school transport charge. After that, concessionary passengers are taken on board where there is room on the bus.

The programme for Government commits to reviewing the concessionary charges and rules elements of the school transport scheme prior to budget 2017. I have asked to meet representatives of all parties in the past few weeks in order that they could put forward suggestions for improving the scheme because there are some difficulties inherent in it, particularly in relation to concessionary tickets. I gave an undertaking, pending that review, that there was no planned programme to downsize buses in the current school year albeit there have been route changes and variations in line with the normal operational decision-making that occurs from year to year.

Any impact in terms of an increase or decrease in the availability of spaces nationally was marginal. The vast number of families and children who use the scheme are very happy with it, particularly the 10,000 children with special needs who are transported daily from door to door. I am absolutely aware of difficulties with concessionary passengers. Simply put, if there is a 20-seater bus catering for 15 eligible children and five concessionary passengers and another child from the area becomes eligible for school transport, there is no choice but to remove one of the concessionary passengers from the bus. Legally and under the Department's rules, regulations and criteria, the eligible child has first call.

We are having some difficulties in that regard. I do not like the idea of having to take any child off a bus. It is my belief all children who need to be transported to school should be so transported. I assure the Senator, however, that there have been detailed ongoing discussions with all parties who were represented at a number of meetings I have had. They are formulating proposals to be sent back to the Department. We will then meet again and if the Senator wishes to attend that meeting, there will be no problem. We will then meet representatives from the Department and Bus Éireann to tighten up the scheme. We will examine the scheme to see where there may be faults in it or elements on which we can improve.

I hope we may have within a few weeks some suggestions to put to the Senator. The matter is complicated and detailed. However, when one considers that 114,000 children throughout the country are transported every day to and from school, it is a huge logistical exercise and problems can develop.

I again thank the Minister of State for his reply. We will be feeding into the process he has outlined. I wish him well in his deliberations.

National Maternity Hospital

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.

I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for selecting this Commencement matter for debate. I have raised the issue again out of frustration.

Last June I raised the issue of the National Maternity Hospital, which has been located in Holles Street since the 19th century. It was established as a hospital in 1894. It is now the largest maternity hospital in Ireland and one of the largest in Europe, based on delivery rates. Almost 10,000 babies are born there every year.

There has been for the 20 years since 1996 a plan to co-locate the National Maternity Hospital on the same site as St. Vincent's University Hospital in Elm Park, Dublin. In October 2013 I was heartened when it was announced that the hospital in Holles Street would be moved to the St. Vincent's University Hospital site. A brand new hospital was to be built which would be suitable for the children of the future and for women to have their babies in a specially designed facility instead of one built in the 19th century. There has been no significant investment in Holles Street hospital since the mid-1950s.

In October 2013 it was announced that €150 million would be spent to build a new hospital, with €25 million to invest to ensure standards were kept up in Holles Street hospital. Planning permission was to be applied for in the last quarter of 2015. Lo and behold, however, a turf war broke out over who would control the budget. It was not necessarily about what is best for women or their children, but whether the current structure operating in the National Maternity Hospital would continue on as an independent hospital or whether St. Vincent's University Hospital would take over all control. That was never in any plan and it was never a problem until it was ready to go for planning permission. Nine months on, although I do not believe that period is significant, we still have had no decision.

The Minister appointed a mediator after I raised this matter last June. It is unacceptable that women and children are being put at risk over what are mainly men in grey suits on boards arguing over who will be in control of what budgets. I understand it is a voluntary hospital and when the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, was in the House in June, he said he did not have a plan B. That is not an excuse. The mediator has been working since June, but we have heard no result. The Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, has presented a damning report on Holles Street hospital, not on the staff but on the conditions, including overcrowding.

There are ten delivery wards for nearly 10,000 births when one should have at least 24 delivery wards. What is planned for the new hospital is 24 delivery wards for a demand of 10,000 births. Only down the road, Holles Street hospital is struggling with ten delivery wards for 9,000 births. It is no longer acceptable that we should have a turf war between two hospitals that is affecting the health of and good outcomes for children and for women who go into the hospital to deliver babies.

I call on the Minister - it is the Minister of State who is present - to accept the need for a certain degree of urgency. There are games being played by the two hospital boards. I will not judge who is right and who is wrong. I only want a quality facility for women in which to have their children and for babies to have state-of-the-art facilities in the hospital which is not the case.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. It is me who is here, unfortunately, but my colleague sends his apologies. My sentiments are the same as those of the Minister and I speak on his behalf.

This is a landmark year for maternity services. Ireland's first national maternity strategy was published in January and HIQA is currently finalising national standards for better, safer maternity care. A Programme for a Partnership Government commits to implementing the strategy and work to facilitate implementation is ongoing.

The €3 million development funding provided for maternity services in 2016 has been allocated in line with the strategy. This includes the establishment of the national women's and infant's health programme; the establishment of maternity networks across hospital groups; the appointment of additional staff; the development of specialist bereavement teams; and the implementation of the maternal and newborn clinical management system.

On the proposed move of the National Maternity Hospital to the St. Vincent's University Hospital campus, as the Senator stated, my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, and I remain hopeful a solution to the current difficulties can be found. As the Senator correctly pointed out, issues have emerged in relation to the governance of the future maternity hospital on the St. Vincent's University Hospital campus and this has, unfortunately, delayed the project much longer than any of us would have hoped.

There have been a number of attempts in the past 12 months, particularly in recent months, to bring both hospitals together in an effort to work through the problems. Shortly after the Minister was appointed to the Department of Health, he met both hospitals and stressed to them the importance the Government attached to this major capital project. Co-location of acute adult and maternity hospitals is Government policy. The model of standalone maternity hospitals is outdated and not the norm internationally. I agree that the 10,000 babies about whom the Senator speaks about deserve to be born in a hospital that is fit for purpose and modern. Co-location helps ensure that, where necessary, mothers have immediate access to a full range of medical and support services.

In an effort to broker a solution, the Minister appointed Mr. Kieran Mulvey to facilitate the discussion between the two hospitals. Mr. Mulvey has engaged extensively with both parties since June and mediation talks are being conducted independently of the Department. However, the Minister has been assured both hospitals have worked constructively and collaboratively and are focused on finding a solution. It is not acceptable that it has been ongoing as long as it has, but I understand the talks will conclude shortly. At this delicate stage in the negotiations, both parties should be afforded the space to work with Mr. Mulvey to identify a resolution away from the media spotlight, and to ensure it does not continue to be, as the Senator put it, a turf war.

The Senator can rest assured that efforts to agree a future governance structure for the co-located hospitals are continuing. There are significant infrastructural deficits within the National Maternity Hospital and the Minister is acutely aware that the future of the NMH is not at Holles Street. However, as both hospitals are voluntary independent hospitals, a solution cannot be imposed on them. Ultimately, both hospitals will have to reach an agreement on the outstanding governance issues if this project, as envisaged, is to proceed, which we all hope it will. I certainly want it to proceed. We want to see a world-class, state-of-the-art maternity hospital development on the St. Vincent's University Hospital campus.

This is a matter of urgency, but something like this takes time. If Mr. Mulvey was appointed in June, one needs to afford him a period of time to work with both hospitals and get the best out of the negotiating process. It is my understanding the talks will conclude shortly and I hope we will have an adequate resolution.

I hate to say nothing has been added to this issue but time and both parties have been afforded time. There is nothing new about this project as it has been known about since 1996. As I stated, the announcement was made in 2013. Moreover, as planning permission was to be applied for in the last quarter of 2015, there is nothing new about this. If both parties believe they can resolve the issue, why not let the planning permission be applied for while they continue discussions? It had been planned that a new maternity hospital would open there in 2018, but that date now has long passed and we are contemplating 2019. Let the mediation continue for three years. Let the structures be hammered out and agreed, but, for heaven's sake, let planning permission be applied for. It was estimated in 2013 that the building cost would be approximately €150 million. That has gone out the window because building costs are shooting up at this stage. Consequently, additional resources must be given to build a new national maternity hospital.

I do not know what is going on behind the scenes and wish the mediator the very best of luck, but, historically, representatives of St. Vincent's University Hospital, Elm Park, have appeared before the Committee of Public Accounts and been knocked about. Is that something that is happening in the background that is delaying the project? I appeal to both sides to allow the planning permission application to go ahead and we can talk about the rest for three years. However, it is unacceptable to me and the women and children of Ireland that this hospital be delayed further. I say to the two parties, not the Minister of State, that they should get on with the business of having a proper national maternity hospital built for the country. The two bodies knew quite clearly that this had been planned for 20 years and was announced in 2013. I find it unacceptable that they still are playing tiddlywinks and power games with the health of women and children.

I thank the Senator.

I apologise, but I am quite passionate about this issue. I have been working on it since serving on the board of the National Maternity Hospital since 1999 and having seen the outdated facilities in which women are meant to have their children. It simply is unacceptable and we must move on from it.

The Senator is well over the time. His case has been well made.

I thank the Cathaoirleach.

Does the Minister of State have anything to add?

I reiterate that I hear and see the Senator's frustration. I have faith in Mr. Kieran Mulvey as I have seen him work with previous projects that had been stuck and he has managed to move them on. I do not believe an indefinite period of time has been given and certainly would not like to see another three years spent in mediation. It needs to happen now. If possible, I will revert to the Senator with a more definite timeline in that regard. It is my information that it is nearing a conclusion. While that answer obviously may not be good enough for the Senator, given that this has gone on for so long, I will make inquiries to ascertain whether I can get a timeframe for the end of the discussions.

Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.