If I am correct, it is Senator Fintan Warfield's maiden Commencement matter.
I normally try to be fair to everyone.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.
On 15 December last I raised this issue in the House on the Order of Business. It relates to the Genealogical Society of Ireland and its premises in Dún Laoghaire and the harbour company there. A week before I raised the issue, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council passed a motion calling on the chief executive to convene an early meeting of the board of the Genealogical Society of Ireland to discuss the decision of the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company to acquire its premises, which houses a unique archive and research facility of the society, and to explore the assistance the council could provide in keeping open the valuable cultural and educational facility in Dún Laoghaire. It was proposed by Councillor Shane O'Brien of Sinn Féin and seconded by Councillor Patricia Stewart of Fine Gael.
I am very proud to call the Genealogical Society of Ireland a friend and be its nominee for the purposes of elections to this House, elections in which the society has been a nominating body for some time. The charity was established in 1990 to promote an awareness, appreciation and knowledge of our genealogical heritage, both in Ireland and among our global diaspora. Our societal connection with the diaspora is often a one-way street, but in this case it is not. It is a representation of its great value that many people among the diaspora have availed of this national service.
The society is devoted to the promotion and study of genealogy and related subjects such as educational leisure pursuits available to all the community, irrespective of age. It exhibits at major events and is based on Carlisle Pier in Dún Laoghaire. I mention the senior citizen element of this and the increasingly ageing demographics of Dublin county. Given that GSI service users are predominantly of an older age, it is imperative that we do all we can to ensure this first-class service will not be lost to those who avail of it. I am sure many of the Minister's constituents and friends avail of this important service. The society engages in outreach services.
I call on the Minister to intervene with immediacy with the chief executive of the harbour company and the chief executive of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to have the decision rescinded, pending the transfer of the harbour company to the council because this institution cannot close. It goes beyond the remit of the harbour company to essentially ask the Genealogical Society of Ireland to pack its bags.
I congratulate the Senator on raising his first Commencement matter in the House. There is a tradition that one cannot be interrupted when one is making one's first speech on any issue in both Houses.
I will be as helpful as I can, but I think there are one or two misconceptions about the Genealogical Society of Ireland's premises and I will try to put one or two of them to rest.
I would like to clarify that the premises in question which is occupied by the Genealogical Society of Ireland is owned by the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company, not the Dublin Port Company. Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company is a commercial company established under the Harbours Act 1996. It has a statutory mandate to take all proper measures to the management, control, operation and development of Dún Laoghaire Harbour. The company is required to conduct its business in a cost-effective and efficient manner. There is no Exchequer funding for the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company, or for any other port company. National ports policy clearly outlines that the commercial port companies must operate on a commercial basis without recourse to State funding for any activity. While I am not involved in the day-to-day operations of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company, the company has informed my officials that it has permitted the Genealogical Society of Ireland to occupy premises on Carlisle Pier in Dún Laoghaire Harbour on a rent-free basis for a period of over six years.
When the Genealogical Society of Ireland's lease on its premises on George's Street, Dún Laoghaire, expired in 2010, Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company offered the society the use of the company-owned premises on Carlisle Pier under a licence agreement for a period of three years. The premises which is owned by the harbour company was not being used for commercial purposes at the time. It was firmly understood by the society at the time of occupancy that the use of the premises was being offered as a short-term solution only to allow the society a period of time to search for an alternative premises in conjunction with the local authority. The Genealogical Society of Ireland has now had the benefit of occupying these premises on a rent-free basis since 2010. The society has acknowledged its debt of gratitude to Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company for the use of the company's premises on Carlisle Pier when the lease on the society's previous premises had expired and for extending that period for a further three-year period, up to and including 2016.
Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company now requires the premises for a commercial letting. It is understood a commercial operator has recently expressed an interest in renting facilities on Carlisle Pier. This includes the premises occupied by the Genealogical Society of Ireland. Given these circumstances, the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company gave the society three months' notice, asking that it make arrangements to vacate the premises. Furthermore, the harbour company has offered to assist it in any way possible with its move. The society has acknowledged the support and assistance provided by the harbour company for it in the past six years. The society has described the harbour company as a very attentive landlord, always on hand to assist the society and its board. The society has accepted the position that it must now vacate the premises and notified its members that its archive and research centre on Carlisle Pier is due to close on 14 February 2017.
I am aware that a motion was passed by the area committee of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council at a meeting held on 5 December 2016, requesting the chief executive of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown to explore what assistance the council could provide for the society to secure alternative premises. It was also acknowledged at that meeting that the society provided vitally important services for active retirement pursuits within the age-friendly county strategy. I understand the county council's executive has now undertaken to meet the society to explore options for alternative premises as a matter of urgency and I hope the meeting will bear fruit.
I take it from what the Minister said there is a refusal to intervene. Will he not use the office he holds and the influence he has to secure an extension of six months? I believe there is a good relationship on all sides. If, under the Act, the harbour company is being transferred to the local authority, why would it be entertained that the management of that company would erode a key service, not only for the local community but given that the society is a truly national organisation? I understand from speaking to locals, the management has form in terms of "exotic ideas", to quote the Minister.
Will the Minister not use his influence and office to get an extension of even six months until the new Act is implemented when the harbour company is to be transferred to the control of the local authority?
I do not want to be unsympathetic. I am very sympathetic to what the Senator is saying, as I have outlined in the other House or at a joint committee meeting. I am very supportive of the great work which has been done by the Genealogical Society of Ireland. The trouble is that the harbour company is a commercial outfit and obliged to run itself as such. It has, as I think anybody would accept, been generous in the past, albeit in a worthy cause, in providing rent-free accommodation for the society. The county council's executive and the company are now using their good offices to try to find suitable accommodation for the society and I will encourage their efforts in that regard. I will not interfere in the day-to-day running of either the board or the company or Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. I will encourage them to give as much support as is possible within their commercial mandate following the Senator's representations to help the society in finding a new premises.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. This matter concerns the provision of a direct flight service between Tel Aviv and Dublin. Ireland's trade relations with Israel have increased at a notable pace within a considerably short period. In 2005 Ireland's service exports to Israel amounted to €64 million, while service imports amounted to €80 million, but within ten years they had increased twofold. In 2015 Ireland's service exports amounted to €1.673 billion, while service imports amounted to €171 million.
In recent years the number of direct flights between and Ireland and international hubs of tourism and trade such as Dubai, the USA and Belgium has been increasing. Despite this, there is no permanent direct flight service between Ireland and Israel. Organisations in both countries have been campaigning for a direct and permanent flight service on the grounds that it would improve the level of production, collaboration and creativity between the two countries. A number of multinational companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Apple all have offices in both states and many Israeli based companies would benefit hugely from flying their staff directly through Ireland's US pre-clearance airports. Furthermore, in addition to the considerable tourism element, both countries are home to Irish and Israeli expatriates. A permanent direct flight service would facilitate both communities remaining connected. In addition to these considerations, a direct flight service between Ireland and Israel would improve Ireland's presentation as a global, connected and modernising state for British-based multinationals to relocate to following the result of Brexit. Therefore, as the motion states, I ask the Minister to work in conjunction with Ireland's commercial airlines in order to play an active role in seeking a permanent direct flight between Dublin and Tel Aviv. Such a development would be particularly beneficial to Ireland, its economy and global reach.
I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter. It is a creative, left-field suggestion which is the kind of response we need on the Brexit issue because it responds in a way which at least acknowledges markets overseas, the need to service and recognise them immediately and the need to recognise opportunities.
I am aware that the Ireland Israel Business Network has been campaigning for a number of years for direct flights between Tel Aviv and Ireland. The network is an independent, non-political organisation that promotes business contacts between Irish and Israeli companies. The two countries have important high-tech sectors. Naturally, a year-round direct flight service would help to facilitate trade and tourism between Ireland and Israel, which is something that we will encourage.
New services, of which there are too many to mention, are being launched regularly. Traffic and the number of routes have been growing at all of our international airports in the recent past. Air services between Ireland and Israel are governed by the EU-Israel air services agreement which was signed in 2012. The agreement provides a framework to open up and integrate the respective markets, strengthen co-operation and offer new opportunities for industry, including airlines and consumers. It is essentially an open skies agreement that allows any European Union or Israeli airline to fly between Ireland and Israel.
Ireland fully supports the European Union's external aviation policy which seeks to negotiate air services agreements with non-EU countries such as Israel. While a range of direct flights operate between the two countries, to date no airline has chosen to operate a year round service. For a number of years Arkia Airlines, an Israeli airline, has operated a twice weekly scheduled service between Tel Aviv and Dublin and is expected to continue this service in 2017. Israeli and Irish airlines have also operated tourist charter flights between the two countries. The State agencies and my Department would certainly be very supportive of any airline interested in launching a year round service.
The Senator is right to point to the need for Ireland to be open to possible opportunities arising from Brexit. Yesterday I hosted an all-island sectoral dialogue in Dundalk concentrating on transport and tourism matters. As I stated at the event, transport and tourism are central to the economic and social fabric of the island of Ireland and my aim is to minimise any negative impact and seek positive opportunities that may arise in the coming years from the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union. My objective in holding the all-island dialogue was to get viewpoints from stakeholders on the island of Ireland on how the United Kingdom's decision would affect them and what could be done by industry and the Government to mitigate these adverse effects.
To sum up, the EU-Israel air services agreement means that any EU or Israeli airline is free to launch direct services should it take the commercial decision to do so. I would certainly welcome such a development. My Department and the State agencies will continue their efforts to promote Ireland’s air connectivity with the rest of the world. I again thank the Senator for raising the matter. My Department fully supports increased connectivity and competition in the market for air services in and out of Ireland. We will work to facilitate any proposed direct service between Ireland and Israel.
I am very pleased with the Minister's response. There would be nothing to be gained from finding fault with it. I wanted to ensure the issue was on the radar.
It is nice to see someone happy with a response.
It was a good reply.
I propose to share my time with Senator Diarmuid Wilson.
That is agreed.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach.
An Bord Pleanála published its decision on the North-South interconnector just before Christmas. It is remarkable in the case of a project of such magnitude that the decision has only nine conditions attached. An ordinary punter would have more conditions attached to a proposal for an extension to a dwelling house.
Needless to say, An Bord Pleanála's decision was met by a tsunami of disappointment, anger and frustration by the people affected. If EirGrid believes people on the ground will take the decision lying down, it is very much mistaken. The determination and resolve of communities opposed to the overgrounding of the North-South interconnector are immeasurable and were very much evident at a meeting I attended in Kells last Thursday night. Opposition to the project is stronger than ever, particularly because people believe the process let them down. Not only that, they believe it was rigged against them and that they were effectively dealing with a fait accompli. There is no greater motivator than a feeling of injustice.
The NEPPC and the CMAPC which represent the communities have made the point that members of the public were placed in a position of having to defend their submissions, rather than EirGrid having to defend its planning application. Remarkably, the planning application was never presented at the oral hearing and it was EirGrid's responses to submissions that were used as the basis for the oral hearing. This is a highly irregular approach.
People are very angry that the inputs of landowners and the public were completely ignored. Contributions from local public representatives were not even recorded and county development plans from across the three counties were conflicted. Most of all, the argument accepting that undergrounding was feasible and required further investigation was completely bypassed. The communities fighting the installation of pylons for the interconnector have gathered evidence to show that undergrounding strengthens the grid and improves reliability such that undergrounding is now less expensive than overhead lines. We were told initially told that undergrounding would be 30 times more expensive, but with advances in technology, it is now possible that undergrounding is even cheaper than an overhead system. Evidence for this comes from a project being undertaken between Belgium and Germany where undergrounding has been undertaken.
In the light of such developments, it is clear the public has no buy-in to the project, as it stands. The Government needs to look very seriously at the underground option and consider how a project such as this can proceed without public support. It needs to ask why An Bord Pleanála only has responsibility for planning matters and no responsibility for impact on the public such as the equivalent bodies have in Denmark and Belgium. Most of all, it needs to ask itself why the public believes the system has been rigged against it.
As far as the people of counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath are concerned, the project will never see the light of day. I ask the Minister to ensure EirGrid will be instructed before it proceeds to underground the project.
I thank Senator Robbie Gallagher for sharing his time with me. I totally and absolutely endorse everything he said about the proposed interconnector. This process has now been ongoing for over ten years, in which time the families who live in these areas of Cavan, Monaghan and Meath have suffered financial, psychological and physical torment. It is just not good enough. From day one they have had to put up with alternative facts, in other words, "lies", from EirGrid and its supporters. We hear the phrase "alternative facts" in the United States of America and the alternative facts have been spun for over ten years to ordinary, decent people living ordinary, decent lives in their own communities. Cavan County Council, Monaghan County Council and Meath County Council have passed motions rejecting the proposed overhead power line. Councils made up of representatives of every community in their counties have said "No". EirGrid should have had to prove its planning application was in order, but it was the ordinary members of the public and public representatives from the respective areas, including Oireachtas colleagues of mine, who went before the appeals tribunal, at which their submissions were not even referred to. That is not good enough in this democracy and just before Christmas An Bord Pleanála announced its decision.
Ten years ago the communities in these areas knew what the decision would be. As Senator Robbie Gallagher said, their resolve to ensure these cables are never erected overground has become even stronger in that ten-year period. Regardless of how long this campaign or proposal continues, they will continue to oppose it and we, as Oireachtas colleagues of theirs, and our colleagues on the councils will stand up for them and ensure their voices are heard. The financial argument for this proposal may have had some credibility ten years ago, but it has none today. The underground option would cost slightly more and some suggest it would cost even less than the overground proposal.
I appeal to the Minister of State, as my colleague, Senator Robbie Gallagher, has done, to ensure the project is placed underground.
I thank Senators Robbie Gallagher and diarmuid Wilson for raising this Commencement matter which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, who, unfortunately, cannot be here. I thank both Senators for providing the opportunity to discuss this important energy infrastructure project. They raise suggestions that are often referenced in the debate on the project and I welcome the discussion on the topic. I note that the Minister will meet local representative groups and public representatives to hear their views. That meeting had been scheduled for last Friday, but, unfortunately, a number of the representatives were unable to meet on that date and the meeting will be rescheduled soon.
It is important to state Government policy and the development of energy infrastructure precludes the Minister with responsibility for energy from directing EirGrid one way or another with regard to this development, or any interconnector. This is a detail that appears never to be raised in a debate, but it is an important one in terms of the parameters of the role of the Minister.
As detailed in the 2012 Government policy statement on the strategic importance of transmission and other energy infrastructure, the policy in this area is very clear. It sets out that the Government does not seek to direct EirGrid and the ESB Networks or any other infrastructure developer to particular sites, routes or technologies. EirGrid is the designated transmission system operator and its role includes the operation, maintenance and development of the electricity transmission network in Ireland. It carries out its role independent from political direction. Would it be appropriate if Ministers with responsibility for energy were to regularly direct it in the discharge of its functions? I do not believe such a scenario of interference would be ultimately beneficial for all of the people living within the State.
The potential for developing the North-South interconnector project underground has been examined and a number of studies have been carried out by EirGrid and independently commissioned by my Department. All of these studies were available to An Bord Pleanála as part of a recent planning process. The statutory independent process concluded on 21 December last with the publication of the planning decision. This decision approved, with conditions, the proposed overground North-South 400 kV interconnector project, although I agree that nine conditions seem to be a little light for a project of that nature, considering, as Senator Robbie Gallagher said, that many homeowners seem to have many more such conditions attached to some planning permissions.
The planning process carried out by An Bord Pleanála heard from my Department that the North-South interconnector was the key project in delivering the objectives of the national energy policy, specifically security of supply, competitiveness and sustainability. This will bring benefits to electricity customers across the island of Ireland. The planning process also heard testimony both in favour of and against the overground and underground solutions. It examined these issues thoroughly and concluded that a high voltage alternating current overhead line was the best technical and economic solution for the North-South interconnector to achieve these national energy objectives.
I stress that the statutory independent planning process has determined that the proposed North-South interconnector should be developed and neither I nor the Minister has any role in directing EirGrid to develop the project in a different manner. I understand and acknowledge the grave concerns of local people, local councillors and all my Oireachtas colleagues in the affected counties. The project has been debated on many occasions in our parliamentary party meetings and I am sure it has also been debated at the Senators' parliamentary party meetings. I accept the concerns people have about the overground solution, but the policy is clear, namely, that we do not have the power to direct the Minister to interfere in a decision on the role of EirGrid. The planning process carried out by An Bord Pleanála was independent. Obviously, I was not present at those proceedings. The Senators have views on what was done, what was not done and what should have been done, but, clearly, An Bord Pleanála has an independent role from the Government which must also be acknowledged.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. Looking at the issue objectively, if one was living in Cork or Donegal and examined the process, one would see there was a planning application, that there were oral hearings and that An Bord Pleanála would then make its decision. One would think it was a fair and detailed process. However, it is only when one is close to it that one sees what happens. Only those on the ground see it. Monaghan County Council raised concerns when the first application was made, but they were not addressed. It raised them again when the second application was made, but they were still not addressed. An Bord Pleanála reached a decision on an issue, in spite of the fact that concerns raised by Monaghan County Council had yet to be resolved. I appreciate that the Minister of State has outlined the legal constraints within which he has to operate, but it is important that the issue be examined as the people of counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath feel wronged by the decision. Given the improvements in technology, the entire project must be looked at again. I assure the Minister of State that, as far as the people of these three counties are concerned, the project will not see the light of day in its current guise, judging from what I hear on the ground.
I acknowledge the concerns of local people about what is a project on a major scale with infrastructure visible on the landscape. Having attended public meetings in my area on smaller projects, including wind farms, I am aware that there is often opposition to projects of such a scale. I accept what the Senator says and understand and sympathise with the views he has expressed on behalf of the constituents he represents. They believe their views have not been taken on board by An Bord Pleanála in its assessment of the planning application.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson referred to alternative facts. From what Senator Robbie Gallagher said, I accept that there are differing views on the cost of undergrounding from that set out by EirGrid. I would like to think there is only one set of facts on the cost of undergrounding compared to that of an overhead line system. I hope it was discussed and verified at the hearings held by An Bord Pleanála and that there are sufficient independent companies that can verify the cost of undergrounding lines versus that of having them above the ground.
This is my first time to address the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, since his elevation. I compliment him on being a champion for the disabled in the work he has done since reaching the office of Minister of State at the Department of Health. However, we are here to talk about St. Stephen's Hospital, Sarsfield Court, Glanmire, County Cork. As the Minister of State is aware, I do not normally take on local issues. I take on national issues, but this issues has ramifications nationally for the Department.
The hospital caters for a small number of mental health patients in the main building, while a separate single storey building includes a child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, unit for children with learning difficulties. Another adjacent building caters for teenagers in care. The Child and Family Agency, Tusla, has offices there and there is also an Alzheimer's unit on the site.
I do not know whether the Minister of State has ever had an opportunity to visit St. Stephen's Hospital, but it is situated on a magnificent 117 acre site which offers ultimate potential for the development of an acute hospital. Its location could not be better. The hospital is located less than a mile from the M8 motorway and only ten miles from Cork city and there is no traffic congestion in the area. There is excellent public transport and ample space for parking. If developed, it would serve a huge catchment area, including not just Glanmire but also Watergrasshill, Mayfield and Ballyvolane, as well as the rapidly expanding towns of Cobh, Carrigtwohill and the wider east Cork area.
St. Stephen's Hospital is in the constituency of Cork North Central which has suffered greatly. There has been little investment in the area.
As we know the shortage of acute beds in public hospitals is the root cause of the overcrowding problem in emergency departments. The current emergency department crisis which is now an all-year-round problem has occurred precisely because of the acute bed shortage and Cork is no exception.
Earlier this year the Health Service Executive's report on acute hospital services for counties Cork and Kerry found that Cork needed a new hospital within the next ten to 15 years to cope with the population growth. The proposed development by University College Cork of a science park at Curraheen, with an acute hospital facility, has been put forward as an option in official planning documents by Cork County Council. While the development of a science park has great merits, there is no guarantee if and when a hospital could be developed on a greenfield site.
Councillor Ger Keohane from Glanmire is a strong advocate of the St. Stephen's Hospital option and has asked me to invite the Minister of State to visit the hospital, with his officials, to explore the possibility of its redevelopment. I agree with Councillor Keohane that the redevelopment of the hospital would be an infinitely more cost-effective, efficient and timely option. The hospital site could have an emergency department, a minor surgery department, a primary care centre, an X-ray department, an ambulance depot, a 24/7 suicide prevention unit, a psychiatric wing and many other facilities. Given the space available and the fact that there are ten derelict buildings on the site, the options are endless. It would cost much less to redevelop St. Stephen's Hospital as a multi-purpose medical facility than to embark on a greenfield project on the same side of the county where there is already a major hospital.
I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to come to the House and giving this matter his consideration.
I thank the Senator for his kind words. Let us hope we can do something about the issue of developing disability services in the coming years and also deal with many other issues such as the one the Senator has raised. I thank him for raising this issue because I know that he is a passionate advocate for health services but particularly mental health and disability services.
In terms of the details, the hospital campus at St. Stephen's Hospital consists of approximately 114 acres which were developed as a regional sanatorium in the 1950s. It is located approximately 14 miles from Cork University Hospital, CUH, and other hospitals in Cork, and has limited access to public transport services. While some acute hospital services were previously based at St. Stephen's Hospital, these services were relocated to Cork University Hospital when it opened in 1979. The vacated buildings were used to facilitate the closure of Our Lady’s Hospital, with the transfer of mental health services to the campus.
Mental health services provided at the campus include an acute mental health unit; four residential mental health units for patients requiring continuing care for enduring mental health conditions; an Alzheimer's unit; and the child and adolescents mental health services, CAMHS, north Lee team. In addition, the site at St. Stephen's Hospital also accommodates a Tusla residential child care facility and children’s outreach services. Fostering services general and regional administration accommodation is also located at St. Stephen's Hospital, with some local primary care services.
There has been and continues to be a need to carry out significant works to the buildings from which inpatient mental health services are provided to enable continued use of these buildings and meet the standards required by the Mental Health Commission for approved inpatient-residential centres. Further works will also be required to the Alzheimer's unit to ensure its ongoing compliance with HIQA regulations. We have to ensure all of these services are up to both national and international standards.
The existing buildings at St. Stephen's Hospital, in the context of acute hospital services, are substantially to a 1950s standard in terms of the building fabric, the layout, the functionality and the engineering services. They would require major capital investment to allow them be brought into use for patient services. It is, in the first instance, a matter for the HSE which has statutory responsibility for the planning and delivery of health and personal social services at local level, including proposed infrastructural developments, to consider the issue raised by the Senator, taking account of agreed policy on the development of acute hospitals in the region and evolving service priorities and resource availability overall.
I will, of course, bring the Senator's concerns to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. As regards major acute hospitals, there needs to be consultation locally, rather than decisions being taken from a macro viewpoint in Dublin. People on the ground need to talk to local representatives who will represent their views. The Minister of State has done a lot of work in the area of disability services, but we still have serious problems with access to public buildings for those with disabilities. He might, therefore, do something about that issue in the near future.
I thank the Senator for raising those issues. As regards the need for local consultation, one must listen to the needs of people in the community. I totally accept that there is a problem in Cork in planning services. I was there just after Christmas to visit a number of centres in Cork city. I did not see the one referred to by the Senator, but I visited many others and got a good feel for the place. We need to deal with the long-term planning of hospitals and other medical services in Cork city and county.
The Senator mentioned the acute beds issue. As he knows, the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, has managed to pump an extra €500 million into health services. We are essentially trying to reinvest in services, but we also need to reform them.
The Senator's final point was about access. Only yesterday, I met a group of disabled adults. They were one of the first groups I met at a conference where the majority of speakers had disabilities. The two key issues raised were transport to allow access to employment and housing. I will bring to the Minister's attention all of the issues and concerns raised by the Senator.