Commencement Matters

Roads Maintenance Funding

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter and I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ross. The Minister will be aware that I am a member of the transport committee, and the reason I have raised this matter is that the chief executive officer, CEO, of Transport Infrastructure Ireland raised it at the committee's meeting last week. He informed the committee that the current funding allocation for road maintenance was cut by approximately €6 million, or 16%, to €31 million. He mentioned that the funding allocation was €58 million in 2008, before the financial crisis.

During that financial crisis the Minister's predecessors confirmed that even though major projects had to be delayed or cancelled at that time, road maintenance would always be maintained or, in some cases, increased. I am aware of some large projects that have been restored and in the case of the Gort to Tuam motorway, it has been completed to Tuam. There are other projects in the capital plan. It is ironic that the road maintenance funding is being reduced. The allocations for local and regional roads were announced yesterday, but my question is specifically about maintenance. The weather over the winter and especially over the last month has caused havoc, particularly with regional and secondary roads in more rural parts of the country and in my constituency, Mayo. The potholes never disappeared but they are now back with a vengeance. Mayo and Galway have the biggest network of secondary and local roads in the country so there is a need for more maintenance. The CEO, Mr. Michael Nolan, said:

If current levels of maintenance funding are not increased, there is an increasing deterioration in the condition and capital value of our national roads network. Even with increased funding for capital pavement renewals, if routine maintenance is not adequately funded, we will see pavements and other assets deteriorating more quickly and having to be replaced earlier than otherwise would have been the case. A proper balance between ordinary maintenance expenditure and capital renewals investment is essential. [...] In relation to our 2018 maintenance allocations, we have been forced to substantially cut our allocations to local authorities. We have reduced our provision for salt purchases for 2018. While salt stocking levels are adequate, we will review the situation following the winter season. We have also cut our allocations for traffic route lighting. The budget provisions for maintenance of the high-speed motorway network has been maintained.

I ask the Minister to clear up some of the confusion that has arisen.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter, which no doubt he will raise at the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport when I am there next week or the week after. As Minister, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding on the national roads programme. In its annual budget, the planning, design and implementation, as the Senator will know, of individual roads projects is a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities' own resources supplemented by State road grants. The overall funding position for 2018 is that while current budgets for national, regional and local roads are being cut, there are increases in capital budgets. Of course, I would have preferred not to be in a position where I had to opt for cuts in the current roads budget. However, it is important to emphasise that the increases in capital funding will more than offset the current expenditure cuts. In this context the national roads capital budget will increase by €35 million to €434 million. The regional and local roads capital budget is increasing by about €100 million to €381 million in 2018.

As regards regional and local roads, I was happy to be able to announce yesterday, of which the Senator will be aware, a much-needed increase in grant allocations of around 29%. Funding in 2018 will largely continue to support the maintenance of the regional and local road network and should allow approximately 2,300 km of regional and local roads to be maintained and 2,100 km to be strengthened this year. The allocations in 2018 will also see expenditure on road improvement projects increasing to approximately €50 million.

Capital projects included in the capital plan will progress together with a significant number of safety related and bridge rehabilitation schemes. I am also introducing ring-fenced funding for community involvement schemes and for drainage. As I indicated yesterday, these are two areas where I have very much wanted to take action and I am very glad to be able to do so this year.

There needs to be an increased focus on measures to improve the resilience of the road network in the face of climate change. There is also provision for 216 smaller bridge rehabilitation schemes and 227 safety improvements projects to be carried out. The main focus of the safety improvements scheme is to improve safety at locations where collisions have taken place. The Government gave a specific commitment after the devastating flooding in County Donegal last year to assist Donegal County Council with road repairs and funding is being provided in 2018 to meet that commitment. It is also important to note that these grant allocations do not represent the total investment in regional and local roads for this year. State grant funding is in addition to the resources the local authorities put into their roads. Considerable autonomy is given to local authorities to decide their roadworks programme. I always emphasise to local authorities the need to prioritise expenditure on roads when allocated their own resources.

The Senator may ask a brief supplementary question.

I thank the Minister for his response. I welcome the increase in capital spending and the new projects which he announced yesterday. I did get the list of the named roads, but as the Minister said, there is a cut in the actual maintenance of roads. The difficulty is that as a result of the severe weather, with frost, low temperatures and almost torrential rain, there has been a significant increase in the breakdown of the surfaces of local roads in rural areas. If those roads are not on the list that has been outlined by the Minister, then the local authorities have a problem. I am requesting the Minister to create an emergency fund to deal with the havoc resulting from the weather conditions in the past month to six weeks. That is my main point. Were the Minister to give me some hope that he will address this issues with the local authorities, I think everyone would be happy.

With the permission of the Chair, may I respond to Senator O'Mahony?

The Senator has made an important point.

He cannot expect me to come in here and say I will write a blank cheque for emergency funding. That is not something I am going to do. I mentioned County Donegal in my initial response. The Government has never been found wanting in a situation or category like that mentioned by Senator O'Mahony. I do not think he will find that we are found wanting on this occasion.

Military Neutrality

I welcome the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney.

I welcome the Tánaiste. Ten days ago, images of the Vice President of the United States rallying US troops on their way to the Middle East went viral across the Internet because he was doing so in a civilian airport in a supposedly neutral country. These images served as a stark reminder that for over a decade, our civilian Shannon Airport has been used by the US army as a virtual forward base for carrying out military operations and exercises in the Middle East. Could one imagine a more salient image to undermine the neutrality of this State than an image depicting the US Vice President rallying US troops in our civilian airport in Shannon before they are transited off to a war zone in the Middle East to do God knows what? Such images make our neutrality a laughing stock.

Since 2002, over 2.5 million US troops have transited through the civilian airport at Shannon on their way to war zones in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Millions of people have been murdered in those wars. We know that in the first six months of 2017, some 427 permits were approved for military-contracted airplanes to stop off and fly through Irish airspace. We know from these permits that the airplanes in question were on their way to Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Does the Tánaiste believe it is a coincidence that each of those countries is part of the Saudi-led coalition that is waging a savage war against the Yemeni people? Does he know how many people have died in that conflict in the past two years? Between 8,500 and 10,000 people have died in the Yemeni conflict, and at least 5,000 of them were civilians.

Thanks to this country's Government, we are facilitating ongoing death and destruction through a civilian airport. Perhaps the airport in question, Shannon Airport, has become a military airport. We need to call this what it is - the end of any reasonable claim by Ireland that it is a neutral country. I do not know whether the Tánaiste believes in neutrality. Perhaps he would like to tell us. We allow US military aircraft to transit troops and weapons to war zones where they kill people. We are now in the process of committing ourselves to permanent structured co-operation, which would increase our military spending year on year at a time when we are experiencing a housing and homelessness crisis. In effect, we are committing ourselves to a European army that will involve itself in the missions and crimes of NATO.

Does the Tánaiste accept that we - the Irish people - have a right to our civilian airport in Shannon? Does he accept that this right is continuing to be denied to us? It has been laid bare to people since 2003 that a civilian airport is being used as a military forward base. The idea that the US Vice President could address US soldiers on their way to the Middle East in our civilian airport in Shannon reveals the extent to which Irish neutrality has been undermined by successive Irish Governments. The question I originally tabled sought to ascertain how the Tánaiste reconciles these facts with our policy of State neutrality. I see that his colleagues in the Civil Service have translated that question so that it has become a request for a statement on our policy of neutrality. I ask the Tánaiste how he can reconcile the disgraceful scene at Shannon Airport just over a week ago, when the US Vice President told his troops to focus on their mission as they headed off to war from our airport in Shannon, with the policy of neutrality.

I hope the Senator is not insinuating that civil servants have done something inappropriate here because I do not believe they have. I will answer the question I have been asked to answer. I welcome the opportunity to reaffirm this Government's full commitment to Ireland's long-standing policy of military neutrality, which is characterised by non-participation in military alliances. Article 29 of the Constitution provides a framework for our policy of military neutrality. It clearly commits the State to uphold "the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations" and "the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes".

That commitment was most recently detailed in the White Paper on defence I brought forward as Minister for Defence, which was published in August 2015. It reaffirmed that Ireland's policy of military neutrality remains a core element of Irish foreign policy, as was previously articulated in the review of foreign policy, The Global Island, published in January 2015. The Government recognises that our neutrality underpins and strengthens our foreign policy and adds substance to the peacekeeping efforts in which we have been involved for over 50 years. This allows Ireland to project a positive, progressive and impartial image on the international stage. The Government upholds and will continue to uphold that long-standing and publicly cherished policy.

The Senator's question refers to a routine refuelling stop of the aircraft of the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, on 20 January 2018. Responsibility for the regulation of foreign aircraft landing or overflying the State is shared between Departments. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has primary responsibility for the regulation of foreign military aircraft. Successive Governments have made landing facilities at Shannon available to the United States for many years and the facility to land is also made available to military aircraft from other countries. Permission must be sought in advance for all landings by foreign military aircraft. Foreign military aircraft of all states request permission to avail of facilities at Shannon or other Irish airports and must adhere to strict conditions that are applied to ensure compatibility with Ireland's policy of military neutrality. Such conditions routinely include stipulations that the aircraft is unarmed, carries no arms, ammunition or explosives, that it must not engage in intelligence gathering and does not form part of any military operation or exercise. In considering requests for landings by foreign military aircraft, my Department's primary focus is on whether the flights in question comply with these conditions. No distinction is made between states when it comes to applying these criteria. Facilitation of landing requests for foreign military aircraft does not alter or breach Ireland’s policy of military neutrality and nor does the refuelling of a government jet en route to political consultations..

The Vice President of the United States was welcome in Ireland during his very short visit. It was a routine stopover and Ireland should continue to co-operate in a friendly manner with the United States, in particular when the Vice President is on his way to another part of the world and Ireland can offer an efficient stopover, as it did. My understanding is that, coincidentally, there were United States troops in Shannon Airport at that time. As Senator Gavan stated, there have been many instances of United States troops passing through Shannon on their way to other parts of the world. Ireland is a natural and very convenient stopover for flights crossing the Atlantic on the way to parts of the Middle East and, under the conditions I outlined, we have for many years offered that facility to unarmed US troops. My understanding is that in this instance the troops were on a civilian aircraft. It is no surprise that a Vice President of the United States, knowing that there were US troops in an airport through which he was travelling, chose to go and meet them. Were I in his position, I would have done the same.

I am struck by a couple of phrases from the speech the Tánaiste has made, such as the "positive, progressive and impartial image" that our neutrality helps our country to portray. Does he think a positive, progressive and impartial image was portrayed when the Vice President of the United States was rallying his troops in our airport in Shannon? The Tánaiste did not answer my question as to whether he thought it appropriate for Mr. Pence to do so in a civilian airport in what is supposed to be a neutral country.

I am glad the Tánaiste quoted Article 29 of the Constitution, which refers to "the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations". Perhaps he can reconcile that with the facilitation of the war in Yemen by the Government. I cannot reconcile the concepts of peace and friendly co-operation among nations with the Government decision, and the Tánaiste is the man in charge in this regard, to facilitate the ongoing support of that war through Shannon Airport.

It is important to say that, as would be customary in any routine refuelling stop, the Vice President of the United States of America availed of the facilities at Shannon Airport. My notes are very clear on this. During the course of this stopover, the Vice President availed of the opportunity to engage informally with a number of US troops since they were passing through also.

To answer the Senator's question directly, I do not believe that this is proof or an indication of anything that undermines Irish neutrality. It is no secret that US personnel crossing the Atlantic often stop in Shannon Airport for refuelling. This does not mean that it determines Irish foreign policy. The Senator would like to insinuate that, but it does not.

It clearly does.

No, it does not. Irish foreign policy is determined by the Government and by the Oireachtas. Before Irish troops go anywhere to any part of the world, we have a triple-lock system, which is a proven system that people trust. This is the basis for our military neutrality.

The Government is facilitating the US support for war in-----

We have also facilitated other countries that have landed and refuelled aircraft in Shannon.

Does that make it right?

This is called international co-operation. Ireland is a friendly country with friendly relations with many countries. It does not mean-----

Tell that to the people of Yemen.

With all due respect to the Senator, I suspect that I have spoken a lot more about Yemen than he has-----

What has the Minister done about it?

I do not know that for sure, but I have raised the issue of Yemen repeatedly-----

The Senator will have to find another way of dealing with it.

-----so I will not take any lectures from the Senator about moral positions on Yemen. We have worked through UN bodies and through the EU to try to ensure action is taken to protect civilians in Yemen and to make sure aid can get in to Yemen, which is being prevented.

What action is the Minister taking to ensure this?

I will continue to do that but I will not accept the insinuation that because we have a friendly relationship with many countries, some of which choose to use our airport facilities appropriately and within a framework that I have outlined, this somehow undermines Irish neutrality-----

They are on their way to war.

-----and our decision making, because it does not.

I thank the Tánaiste and the Senator.

Sitting suspended at 2.58 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.