Commencement Matters

Northern Ireland

I thank the Minister of State for attending. On a visit last year to two integrated schools in Northern Ireland as Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I saw at first hand the success of bringing children and staff from Catholic and Protestant traditions, as well as those of other faiths or none, together in one school. The two schools were Strangford Integrated College in Newtownards and Hazelwood Integrated Primary and Nursery School in Newtownabbey, Belfast. There was a clear emphasis on respecting and celebrating different backgrounds and I sensed a genuine atmosphere of tolerance, respect and curiosity among students for one another.

A number of key issues arose during my visit. For example, applications to the schools were increasing in number, showing a need for capital investment to provide the resources required to implement the curriculum properly. Further investment was urgently required in one school for programmes that addressed students' special needs at an early age, thus preventing the need for interventions at later stages.

There are 62 integrated primary and second level schools in Northern Ireland with a total of 22,000 pupils, accounting for 7% of the region's entire student population. It is important to state that the Good Friday Agreement notes that an essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including through initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing.

A great deal of good work is being done in terms of integrated education. As part of the island of Ireland, we must continue to play our part. Between 2007 and 2014, the reconciliation fund of the now Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade made a total of €283,000 available to the Northern Ireland Council on Integrated Education. I would like an update on these funding resources and any further plan to support the development of integrated education in Northern Ireland.

This is a good news story. It was clear from my visit that integrated education could be a strong and powerful force for bringing people together and promoting genuine understanding. I hope that the Minister of State's response will refer to more funding for integrated schools. They have made a significant difference.

They have been at the vanguard of change in Northern Ireland and we must play our part, too.

I thank the Senator for raising this important topic for discussion. It is an issue in which he has had a keen interest for many years and I am delighted to be in a position to update the Seanad on it. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, has asked me to convey his apologies and regrets that he cannot be here.

As co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government remains committed to supporting and encouraging integrated education in Northern Ireland as an essential aspect of the reconciliation process. Considerable progress on reconciliation has been seen in the 18 years since the signing of the Agreement on 10 April 1998, but, as the Seanad will be aware, Northern Ireland continues to be, in large part, a segregated society. Integrated education which brings together students of Catholic and Protestant traditions and those of other faiths and none offers huge potential to address the divisions that persist and help to promote a culture of tolerance throughout all communities. It is through meaningful shared experiences such as education that young people will have the opportunity to truly begin to get to know people from different backgrounds and leave behind the burdens of the past.

The commitment of the Irish and British Governments, as well as the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, to encourage initiatives in support of integrated education, as well as shared education, was further stated in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement and the 2015 Fresh Start plan. In this regard, the announcement in March 2016 by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Theresa Villiers, on the release of funding in support of the Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start commitments was a welcome development which should support the provision of additional integrated schools and facilitate the building of new facilities for a number of existing integrated schools.

In support of the Irish Government’s long-standing commitment in this area, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s reconciliation fund has provided financial support for many years for organisations working in the area of integrated education, including the Integrated Education Fund and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education. I take the opportunity to commend both organisations for the joint work they carry out on this issue. Since 2011, €158,000 has been provided in grants for the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, including a grant of €25,000 in 2015. A further application is pending. In the first round of 2016 funding, the Integrated Education Fund received a grant of €10,000 from the reconciliation fund. To date since 2009, over €91,000 has been allocated to the Integrated Education Fund in support of its work. In addition to this, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including through the Irish Joint Secretariat in Belfast, engages closely on the issue of integrated education and provides a range of additional supports for organisations working on this issue, including through the hosting of events to highlight this important aspect of reconciliation.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I also thank the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister, as well as previous Ministers, for being generous with funding and the time allocated to the issue of integrated education, as well as many other cross-Border and peace initiatives across the island but particularly in Northern Ireland. I also pay tribute to the officials of the Department in Belfast, the Republic of Ireland and further afield for the work they have done.

This is a good news story. Integrated education has made a huge difference in Northern Ireland. It has been at the vanguard of change in the way education is delivered in Northern Ireland and has been of enormous help in terms of social integration. I wish to mention one person, a great friend of mine, Baroness May Blood, who comes from the Shankill area and sits in the House of Lords. The House will know her from the work she has done at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. She has been a tireless worker on the issue of integrated education and raised £15 million during the years. I thank her and all members of the Integrated Education Fund in Northern Ireland for the work they have done. They have made a huge difference. It behoves us to support their great work in every possible way.

Pre-Hospital Emergency Care

I ask the Minister of State if it would be possible to provide defibrillators in telephone box style or similar structures in all towns and villages which would be easy to identify and access in an emergency. The life of the teenager Tom Geaney was saved in Killarney through the use of a defibrillator. He recently opened such a structure in Killarney, the first of its kind in County Kerry, for which a reconstructed telephone box was used. Unfortunately, there are very few telephone boxes left in the country. Historically, the telephone box played a huge part in Irish communities, in helping to keep families together by allowing them to communicate with one another. The remaining telephone boxes could be used to house life-saving devices and help the public to recognise and remember the location of defibrillators. It has been proved that use of a defibrillator significantly improves the chances of survival of someone who has an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.

Earlier this month the Health Products Regulatory Authority highlighted the fact that approximately 750 automated external defibrillators required urgent safety and maintenance updates. I have carried out some work on this issue in recent weeks and organised a meeting with Mr. Paul Bradley, director of corporate affairs with Eir, the company which owns most of the remaining telephone boxes in the country. It is my understanding Eir has been approached by a number of local authorities with a view to converting the remaining telephone boxes into defibrillator stations. However, Eir has a concern about liability issues. Liability must be taken over because, as a telecommunications provider, Eir does not want to have responsibility for the maintenance of defibrillators. I am sure this issue can be resolved. I would be grateful if the Department took responsibility and liability for the remaining telephone boxes and converted them into defibrillator stations. In that way, people would be able to access them out of hours. I am sure there is technology available that would facilitate access to the nearest defibrillator station when people called the emergency services. This is a great idea and I do not think there would be an enormous cost involved in reconstructing telephone boxes or providing similar structures which would be easily identifiable as defibrillator stations. There are defibrillators available in many GAA clubs and other locations, but they should also be available in the centre of towns and villages. The recent opening of the first defibrillator station in a reconstructed telephone box in Killarney by Tom Geaney illustrates the usefulness of such structures in emergencies.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter.

The Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council, PHECC, is the independent statutory agency with responsibility for standards, education and training in the field of pre-hospital emergency care. The council is the regulator for emergency medical services and its role is to protect the public. Automated external defibrillators can be placed in cabinets which are widely available for interior and exterior deployment and use. The PHECC has adopted the international liaison committee on resuscitation automated external defibrillator signage. This is defibrillator signage with a specified standard attached to it. The sign must be a green square without markers. The safety sign requires a cross in the right hand corner as part of the requirements of the standard and a heart and flash are standard symbols that must make up the sign. The standard allows text to be provided in a separate box to improve comprehension.

I advise the Senator that one of the means to help to improve health outcomes in this area is through the expansion of the national first response network. Community first responder groups comprise this national network. They are people from local communities who are trained in the provision of basic life support and the use of defibrillators who attend a potentially life-threatening emergency in their area. They are then able to provide for an early intervention in situations where a person has a heart attack or cardiac arrest by, among other things, resuscitation and defibrillation.

Cardiac First Responders Ireland which was launched in 2015 is the national umbrella organisation for community first responder groups. It works with the National Ambulance Service, the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council and the centre for emergency medical science in University College Dublin. There are 141 community first responder groups tasked by the National Ambulance Service. If an emergency 999 or 112 call for cardiac arrest, choking, chest pain or breathing difficulties is made to the National Ambulance Service in an area where a community first responder group is established, the on-duty community first responder receives a text message from the National Ambulance Service at the same time as an ambulance is despatched with location and call details. The community first responder goes straight to the scene and administers initial care, including defibrillation, if required, until the National Ambulance Service emergency resources arrive.

The National Ambulance Service supports the establishment of new cardiac first responder groups around the country and encourages all communities to consider the establishment of such a scheme in their areas. I am familiar with the excellent work such groups do in my local area. I welcome the work of Cardiac First Responders Ireland, as part of which initiative valuable life-saving assistance and help are provided. This is especially important in non-urban areas where an immediate intervention may be required pending the arrival of an ambulance.

On the suggestion made by some local authorities on the use of existing telephone boxes, I will be pleased to convey the Senator's message in this regard to the relevant Minister.

Who is the relevant Minister?

As the matter is one for local authorities, the relevant Minister is the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney.

While I am very pleased that the Minister of State has provided more detail about Cardiac First Responders Ireland, her response does not address the question I asked. I appreciate her comments on the issue of emergencies, but I asked about specific structures or the installation of identifiable boxes in towns and villages. It is heartening - the Minister of State should pardon the unintentional pun - to hear how great the emergency services are, which I do not doubt for one moment. I will contact the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government on the role of local authorities. I hope my proposal will secure the backing of the Department of Health. While the Minister of State's reply does not address the question I asked, I appreciate the information she has provided all the same.

Clear standards are in place and everyone must sign up to them. Anyone who knows what a defibrillator looks like - Senators will have seen them in various locations - is aware that the standards are outlined clearly. Given that no reference had been made to Eir or local authorities before my arrival in the House, the information provided by the Senator is new to me. I have given an undertaking that I will convey the Senator's suggestion to the Minister. It would be helpful if she were to liaise with him.

Wild Atlantic Way

I call on Fáilte Ireland to include Limerick city in the Wild Atlantic Way route before the commencement of the 2017 tourism season. I also ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to put his weight behind my proposal. In 2015 I submitted a motion on this issue to my local authority, Limerick City and County Council, which received unanimous support. While we subsequently contacted Fáilte Ireland on the issue, no action has been taken to date. Given that Limerick is the capital of the mid-west, I cannot understand the reasons the city and Shannon Airport were not included as attractive options in the original Wild Atlantic Way project.

The Wild Atlantic Way has developed into a phenomenal success. Its route extends from County Donegal to Kinsale and is focused on the coastline. It incorporates a number of well-known tourist routes such as the Ring of Kerry in the county of the Acting Chairman, Senator Ned O'Sullivan, and the Connemara and County Donegal coastlines.

The Wild Atlantic Way vision is to create a world-class, sustainable and unmissable destination brand that will engage and energise visitors in order that they will become powerful advocates and want to return for more. This is a powerful statement. Limerick city offers a number of excellent visitor attractions, including King John's Castle, the Hunt Museum, the Georgian quarter and Thomond Park, to name but a few. An increasing number of overseas visitors are interested in history and culture and Limerick and its environs offer many opportunities to explore both. There are theatres and art galleries, as well as excellent hotels, restaurants and sports venues. Visitors to the area take in Ennis, Bunratty folk park, the castles at Bunratty and Knappogue, Lough Gur and Adare and rejoin the main route to Foynes. Accommodation stock is concentrated in counties Cork and Kerry which account for more than half of the tourist properties and 44% of beds along the Wild Atlantic Way. A large proportion of highlighted activities and attractions are also to be found in these counties.

Limerick city and environs could provide for a substantial and sustainable increase in accommodation, activities and attractions in a central location along the Wild Atlantic Way route. I cannot understand the reason Shannon Airport is not strongly promoted as an entry point to the Wild Atlantic Way. The airport offers easy access routes from many countries and would surely contribute to increased visitor numbers if highlighted as a convenient way of joining the Wild Atlantic Way. The area is an ideal destination for those who would like to take a short break and explore part of the route.

Tourism is a critical component of the health of the economy and particularly important to the western half of the country. As well as large-scale business operations, there are numerous micro-enterprises in the region which provide much-needed employment in local communities. It is Government policy to seek to increase revenue from overseas visitors. The Wild Atlantic Way is a key component of this policy and the inclusion of Limerick and Shannon would greatly assist in achieving this aim. We need to maximise visitor numbers and do everything possible to extend the tourism season.

Limerick and its environs would be an attractive addition to the Wild Atlantic Way project during the off-peak season. I am not seeking a major change. My proposal would provide an option for visitors who would like to experience the attractions Limerick city has to offer without travelling far from the current route. It would add variety to the overall visitor experience, which is surely a worthwhile aim. Limerick is not far from the Wild Atlantic Way in that the tide visits the city twice daily.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is responsible for the formulation of national tourism policy, while Fáilte Ireland has operational responsibility for tourism initiatives such as the Wild Atlantic Way. Both Ireland's Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way have been phenomenal additions to the tourism offering.

The Wild Atlantic Way project was born out of a decline in visitor numbers to the west in successive years. It is not simply a touring route but a means of guiding and attracting visitors to particular areas. Its purpose is to guide visitors to what is on offer on the western seaboard, while also providing easy access to a range of experiences along and near the route. Its objective is to motivate more overseas visitors to visit the west, give them reasons to linger longer and encourage them to engage with communities along the route.

Communities on and near the Wild Atlantic Way are already using the route to generate more tourist traffic and revenue. The route was developed using a collaborative approach in which regional steering groups were convened to inform route development. In total, 366 feedback submissions were made containing 862 individual comments. The initial capital funding for the agreed route was directed towards route signage and developing 188 discovery points along the route, including 15 signature discovery points. More recently, the work involves installation of photo points and interpretation panels at all 188 discovery points.

Fáilte Ireland is investigating the possibility of piloting a number of drives along the Wild Atlantic Way, with a view to offering visitors the opportunity to explore the breadth of visitor experiences adjacent to the route. The purpose of this would be to encourage a greater regional spread of visitors across the country and mitigate against congestion in high-traffic spots along the route. County Limerick which is my local area and adjacent to County Kerry, from where the Acting Chairman comes, is situated within the region of the Wild Atlantic Way known as the cliff coast which stretches from Galway to Ballybunion. Foynes Island is a discovery point along the Wild Atlantic Way route and Limerick city and Adare are identified as places of historical interest on the Wild Atlantic Way map.

Limerick city is not directly on the Wild Atlantic Way but has an important role as a gateway city and accommodation hub for the west. It has not been included on the route as it is not a place where the land meets the Atlantic Ocean in a wild manner, even though Senator Byrne is correct in that the tide comes in and out twice a day. Limerick is not regarded as an inland city; rather it is an estuarine city.

Limerick businesses are well placed to take advantage of the Wild Atlantic Way initiative. Limerick offers Wild Atlantic Way travellers an urban experience with its history, as Senator Byrne outlined. It is extremely well equipped to exploit the Wild Atlantic Way proposition given its ease of access, range of food, high-quality accommodation etc. Fáilte Ireland is working closely with tourism businesses throughout Limerick to help them exploit their position close to the Wild Atlantic Way. It has invested significantly in the Limerick tourism product over the recent past. For example, it invested €4.7 million in the redevelopment of King John's Castle as an attraction which is already exceeding visitor targets. A number of initiatives have been progressed by Limerick City and County Council within both the city and county areas. It is vital for the sector to increase the geographical spread of activity along the Wild Atlantic Way. There has been enormous positive feedback from traders along the Wild Atlantic Way route over the recent past, with occupancy levels at an all-time high.

Since being appointed Minister of State with responsibility for domestic tourism, I have taken this issue to heart. I invest a lot of time with local authorities. Last week, I met representatives of the County and City Management Association. We discussed the issue, specifically the development of the tourism potential in local authority areas. It is my intention over the next short period of time, in conjunction with Fáilte Ireland and city and county managers, to examine specific initiatives that are local authority-led, supported by Fáilte Ireland and concentrated in areas that have the greatest level of immediate potential for spin-off from the Wild Atlantic Way. I hope to be able to make an announcement to that end shortly. I expect Senator Byrne will be pleasantly surprised by the announcement.

I thank the Minister of State for his positive response. It is something I have beaten the drum about for a while. I am delighted to hear the Minister of State is willing to take my point of view on board and is working on some initiatives on tourism attractions. I await his positive response in the near future.

Senator Byrne referred to Shannon Airport. No airports along the west coast, including Kerry, Shannon, Cork and Knock, are directly on the Wild Atlantic Way route but they all have an incredible offering. Tourism Ireland, through its international fund for regional marketing, and Fáilte Ireland have a keen interest in making sure investment will be in place to promote ease of access for those airports, as well as for Cork Harbour and Rosslare.

Local authorities are empowered under the Local Government Act. As I said last week during a debate to which the Acting Chairman contributed, I would relish the opportunity to return to the Seanad for a more detailed discussion on my plans and actions for domestic tourism and tourism on the island. Local authorities have a much stronger position and legal basis under which they can drive initiatives like those to which I have referred from a Limerick and Clare point of view - I have put them together and both managers are working on an initiative I am trying to progress. A number of things are happening. I would welcome the opportunity to have a proper discussion, listen to the views of Senators and have Senators hear what I am doing. They have a strong affinity for local authorities, which are key in the development of this product.

This is not all about branding and the Wild Atlantic Way will not go through Carnsore Point or eventually find its way into Greenore. There will not be extensions to the Wild Atlantic Way as we know it now. Rather, there will be future development opportunities where that brand can be used in a local, regional and national context to develop the tourism industry in adjoining areas. That is my priority and that of the Department and Fáilte Ireland. I hope we will have positive news in the future.

Senators might consider having a full debate. They are closely associated with local authority members and we could discuss how they can assist me and I can assist them in making sure that the strategies we hope to be able to deliver in the early part of 2017 can be driven by local authority members. The Seanad has an important role to play and I would welcome the opportunity for it to assist and co-operate with me in that regard.

On a humorous note, I had the privilege of being a director of Limerick Harbour and of Shannon Foynes Port at different times. There were some fairly wild encounters, as I am sure the Minister of State and Senator Byrne will know.

Not on the water, however.

Sitting suspended at 11.05 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.